The Trouble With Bob

I wanted to like Bob. As an advocate of easier-to-use PCs, I had hoped Microsoft Corp.'s new "social interface" would bring computing much closer to that lofty goal. After all, in lieu of a manual, Bob guides PC novices through a suite of software programs by replacing often cryptic icons with animated characters and cartoon images of such familiar household items as a checkbook and an address book. But while Microsoft is on to the right idea, Bob comes up a little bit short.

What's the matter with Bob? For starters, he's demanding. (I can't resist calling Bob a "he," though Microsoft uses "it.") The $99 program--available in late March--requires 8 megabytes of RAM and 30 megabytes on your hard disk. Bob won't run on a 386 computer, and the prerelease copy we tested was sluggish even on a moderately fast 486.

TOON CASSEROLE. On the plus side, Bob boasts handsome graphics. When you first knock on the front door of Bob's house, a cartoon dog named Rover guides you to a living room. Rover tells you to launch Bob's programs by clicking on objects in the room; click on a letter box, for instance, to call up an E-mail program. You can add objects to start up other programs on your hard disk. Family members can redecorate, jump to other rooms, or create private spaces with passwords. A warning: If you type the wrong password three times, Bob lets you create a new one--so much for real security.

Bob's main promise is that users never have to consult a manual. Instead, guides such as Rover hang out on the PC screen and steer you through Bob's applications. Over time, the guides offer help only when they think you'll need it.

Some of the dozen choices for guides start off more helpful than others. The eager-to-please Java is an excitable caffeine-gulping dinosaur. The less helpful Ruby is a "mean and nasty" parrot. Scuzz is a stupid, rabid rat who obnoxiously bounces a ball in the house and has you click on such buttons as "bag it" or "cool," rather than Windows' usual "cancel" or "O.K." Those who quickly tire of these cutesy characters, as I did, can choose other guides.

Sometimes, the guides could offer a bit more help. I had to poke around to discover that I had to click on "advanced options" to adjust Bob's sound level. To create an extra-secure checkbook password, I had to click on "use a different file, change this one, or make a backup."

Still, many of Bob's programs are useful, if not particularly original. Bob reminds you of birthdays, appointments, and when bills are due. I was impressed by the letter writer, a simple word processor that makes it easy for novices to customize missives (complaints, holiday greeting, job-related). For a monthly fee, you can pay bills electronically in the checkbook.

The financial guide and household manager programs allow you to keep track

of bank accounts, stocks, and maintain a record of car repairs. Bob offers advice on insurance, estate planning, even household-cleaning supplies--including a tip on removing bloodstains from carpeting. But sometimes Bob seems to confuse ignorance about computers with general dim-wittedness. A vacation packing tip: "Wear your heaviest items rather than packing them." Under kitchen information, you are advised to "make sure that [an appliance] will fit through doors and hallways, in addition to fitting in its designated space."

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates acknowledges that Bob is only the beginning. Among other things, future social interfaces--perhaps for the office as well as the home--will look more realistic, remember tasks better, and employ voice recognition. But if he is to be more than a cute introduction to PC use, young Bob has some growing up to do.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.