A case for resurrecting Clippy

Do you remember “Clippy?” His official name was “Clippit” and his official capacity as an office assistant meant Clippy used his charm to give users helpful advice for the office productivity software suite from Microsoft that they were using to create documents and crunch numbers.

Clippy, and other office assistant characters available for selection, garnered a lot of criticism from computer users. Many deemed Clippy to be “intrusive and annoying” (per Wikipedia) because it interrupted the user's workflow at inopportune times and with rather elementary advice to the task at hand. To its creators’ credit, the ability to silence office assistants like Clippy from interrupting one's workflow was offered but that did not appease users enough. Clippy and his gang of user-selectable office assistants bid farewell in 2001.

From a geek perspective, perhaps the artificial intelligence built into consumer products was still nascent back then and resulted in Clippy dishing out unpolished and rudimentary advice that annoyed more people than it helped.

The artificial intelligence in 2019 that underpins “voice assistants” like Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple), and Google Assistant (Google) are many times more sophisticated in their intelligence compared to what was fueling Clippy and the gang almost two decades ago! 

Voice assistants are also ubiquitous where they are baked into traditional devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets, or increasingly making appearances in the “smart” devices category with internet connectivity (aka Internet of Things or “IoT” for short) such as SmartTV or various smart IoT products that make up the Smart Home category. In fact these voice assistants get their intelligence from the internet, aka the cloud, even though it can provide rudimentary help, just like Clippy did, when disconnected from the digital world.

Although consumers either loved or hated Clippy’s assistance two decades ago, I believe the representation of assistants as animated characters giving audio and/or visual cues in operating a device should be propitious.

Combining the ever-increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence with the visual representation of assistants giving step-by-step guidance to successfully accomplish a repeatable task on smartphones, tablets or computers should be helpful. This is akin to how robots have become more human-like, aka becoming an android, where interaction between humans and robots continues to be more like how two humans interact with each other.

The more relatable the assistants become visually, the better the chances of accepting the help it provides. Voice assistants, to many, are already very helpful and adding the visual cues a la Clippy should make it even better. With careful planning as to when and how these assistants are summoned to duty, it should avoid what Microsoft did to Clippy prematurely. Artificial intelligence, aka the brains behind the operation of these assistants, have vastly improved and will keep improving!

Tak Sato

Strategist and technologist with almost 30 years of experience in the private sector. Holds Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Science and Executive MBA from Cleveland State University.

As Founder of the Center for Aging in the Digital World, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit empowering seniors with digital literacy, Tak connects the dots to help people utilize appropriate technology in their personal and professional lives.

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Volume 11, Issue 17, Posted 9:48 AM, 09.04.2019