This year marks the 25th anniversary of Windows 95, and people have a lot to say about it. My favorite part of Windows 95 was an infamous program called Microsoft Bob. It was a massive failure, but I loved it anyway.
A Forgotten Piece of Windows History
Windows 95 was a groundbreaking operating system that introduced many concepts we still use today. Iconic features, like the Start menu, Taskbar, Windows Explorer, and the Recycle Bin, all first appeared in Windows 95.
One thing that isn’t fondly remembered from those days is Microsoft Bob. It was released in 1995 as a $99 CD-ROM, and it also shipped on some Windows 95 computers. The latter is how I first stumbled upon Bob as a kid, and it’s a relationship I remember to this day.
What Was Microsoft Bob?
At its most basic level, Microsoft Bob was an alternative to the typical desktop interface. Instead of columns of icons and a Start menu, your desktop was a virtual room. Everyone who used the computer could set up their own room, which was part of a larger virtual house.
The Bob experience started at the front door. To sign in, you literally clicked a door knocker to open the password-protected user profiles. From the metallic clink of the door knocker, to the bubble pop of the menu clicks, the login process was a nostalgic smorgasbord of sound effects.
Once you were inside, your room appeared. There were a surprising number of choices when it came to picking a room, too. You could choose both the kind of room (attic, garage, kitchen, and so on) and style (castle, haunted, retro, and so on) you wanted.
The rooms were also highly customizable. There was a large library of objects you could add and move around to your heart’s content. You could also change how the objects looked. To explore the house, you simply clicked one of the doors and chose a new room to visit.
Again, the rooms functioned as desktops. The objects were shortcuts to Windows applications. Bob came with its own suite of apps, but you could also add shortcuts to all the regular Windows apps. In the image below, I added some games to the bookshelf.
Your helpful “personal guide” watches all of this from the corner of the screen. The one most people remember is Rover the dog, but there were several other characters you could choose. They all had cute names and backstories. The personal guide sort of acted as the Start menu, with a bunch of options you could access at any time.
Who Was Bob for?
There are a number of well-documented reasons why Microsoft Bob failed, but its main flaw might simply have been a lack of self-awareness.
When you first look at Bob’s colorful interface, fun interior design tools, and cartoon companions, it appears to be geared toward kids. It’s probably not an interface you would use if you were familiar with computers.
There was a lot more potential for something like Bob in 1995 because not as many people had or used computers. However, it likely seemed condescending to adults who were just starting to use them. Imagine being 35 years old, and having a cartoon dog hold your hand through the process of opening a calendar app.
Microsoft’s failure to understand Bob’s audience was first demonstrated when tech journalists reviewed it before the launch of Windows 95. Because Microsoft was marketing Bob as software for “everyone,” tech-savvy journalists reviewed it as such. Of course, tech journalists didn’t need a simplified interface, so the reviews were not kind.
Microsoft Bob could have worked as a niche product, but that was the opposite of what Microsoft wanted. All the marketing was about how “everyone in your household” will love Bob. Instead of focusing on Bob’s strengths for beginners, Microsoft pushed it as something everyone should use.
Why I Loved Bob
The first computer I remember using was a Gateway 2000 that ran Windows 95. I’ve had a computer for most of my life, but I also remember when they were new.
Computers are something I picked up on very quickly (I vividly remember using MS-DOS to play Commander Keen). Still, I was only around 9 years old, so I was at the right age to appreciate Bob. I had no problem using the standard desktop, but Bob was just more fun. It also didn’t seem condescending to someone that young.
One of my favorite things to do in Bob was redecorate the rooms and customize everything. I was the type of kid who reorganized my real bedroom just for kicks. Years after Bob, I enjoyed doing the same thing in The Sims.
Another thing my sisters and I loved about Bob was the GeoSafari quiz game, which had its own personal elephant guide named Hank. It was educational, but fun, so it didn’t feel like learning.
The main thing that appealed to me about Microsoft Bob was having my own “space.” My room in Bob was an area on the computer that was completely mine. I could make it look how I wanted, play games, and just feel “at home” on the computer.
Now, it’s actually a bit funny that I loved Bob so much because I didn’t use it at all in the way Microsoft intended. I don’t remember launching applications from the Bob interface, but then, the only apps I cared about were MS Paint and Hover.
The way I used Bob ties back into why it ultimately failed: Microsoft didn’t understand who it was for. Bob would have greatly benefitted from a more focused approach. Leaning into the playfulness and marketing it as a tool to teach kids how to use a computer would have been the better approach. Bob definitely made me more comfortable with using a computer.
Bob’s Lasting Imprint
While Bob was a failure (and make no mistake, it failed hard), parts of it lived on in future Microsoft products. The personal guides are the most obvious example.
The infamous Clippy assistant in Microsoft Office is the most well-known, but it’s not the only one. In fact, Microsoft actually brought back Rover as a Search Assistant in Windows XP. Today, many of us have a digital assistant—you probably use Siri or Google Assistant every day.
While some of the ideas used in Bob were ahead of their time, the execution was wrong. A traditional desktop interface isn’t that difficult to understand, and people don’t need the clock app to look like a physical clock. Likewise, user profiles work just as well as rooms in a virtual house.
What’s clear, though, is Bob’s social and more personal concepts were smart. It’s now common to interact with software in a conversational flow. Apps and websites will take you through a setup process using casual language. Siri and Google Assistant literally talk to us like humans. Bob just took the concept a little too far.
It’s unfortunate Microsoft Bob will always be remembered as one of the company’s biggest blunders. For me, it’s a fond memory from my early days with Windows. Even the weirdest products can find a loving audience. I hope retirement is treating you well, Bob.