Microsoft Bob


The World is Ready. For Windows 8.

Today Windows 8 hits the world with all of the attendant hoopla of a Microsoft launch. Hopefully a bit more ready than it was for Microsoft Bob.

Microsoft Bob emerged out of Microsoft’s work in ‘Social Interfaces’, ways to make the computer more approachable and easy to use (which happens to be one of the big design points and selling features for Windows 8). The other great output from that work was the infamous Office ‘Clippy’. So imagine taking one of the most derided features to ever hit Microsoft’s marquee franchise…and make an entire product out of it. It would seem to be an epic fail.

But Jeff Atwood in Coding Horror (thanks Aidan), ‘The Only Truly Failed Project’ takes a rosier view…

  • “There’s no question that Microsoft Bob was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. But that’s the funny thing about failures – they often lead to later successes. Take it from someone who lived and breathed the Bob project: ‘I was the one who sent Bill Gates email at the height of the positive Bob-mania that said we were likely to face a horrible backlash. Tech influentials had started telling me that they were going to bury Bob. They not only didn’t like it, they were somehow angry that it had even been developed. It was personal. And that’s exactly what happened. Bob got killed. But first, it was ridiculed and stomped. For Microsoft, it was a costly mistake. For the people who worked on it, Bob taught many lessons. Lessons that came into play for subsequent products that made a big impact, both at Microsoft and beyond…’ And then, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Melinda French – Bill Gates’ future wife – managed the Microsoft Bob project at one point. Bob was the first Microsoft consumer project that Bill Gates personally had a hand in launching. Well, at least he got a wife out of it. Yes, Bob was an obvious, undisputed and epic failure. We can point and laugh at Bob. But to me, Bob is less of a comic figure than a tragic one. Unless you’re an exceptionally lucky software developer, you’ve probably worked on more projects that failed than projects that succeeded. Failure is de rigeur in our industry. Odds are, you’re working on a project that will fail right now. Oh sure, it may not seem like a failure yet. Maybe it’ll fail in some completely unanticipated way. Heck, maybe your project will buck the odds and even succeed. But I doubt it. I own a boxed copy of Microsoft Bob. I keep it on my shelf to remind me that these kinds of relentless, inevitable failures aren’t the crushing setbacks they often appear from the outside. On the contrary; I believe it’s impossible to succeed without failing.”

Atwood’s piece is goes on enumerating the inevitability of failure in anything to do with software. But, Microsoft has long operated with a culture of embracing failure to learn and grow from it and hopefully all of those learnings will make Windows 8 as big a success as its launch today portends.