Editorial: Bob’s your uncle

Journalists tend to be a suspicious lot by nature, and, considering the recent intrigue at Intel, there are, perhaps, none more skeptical than those covering the computer industry.That said, it was understandable that the scribes who assembled at Toronto's Casa Loma...

Journalists tend to be a suspicious lot by nature, and, considering the recent intrigue at Intel, there are, perhaps, none more skeptical than those covering the computer industry.

That said, it was understandable that the scribes who assembled at Toronto’s Casa Loma Jan. 18 to witness the official Canadian unveiling of Microsoft Bob would try their best to find fault with the new application.

And, to Microsoft’s chagrin, they had their successes.

Most notably, it was uncovered that for Bob’s e-mail to work, the computer owner has to take out an account with mci – no other on-line services provider will do. There is a smack of inflexibility and heavy handedness about this requirement that just doesn’t sit well.

But despite its flaws, Microsoft Bob goes further than any program yet developed to break down the tech-barrier between pc technology and user. In doing so, it has the potential to break the home pc market wide open.

Bob, as we will all be informed soon enough via a major consumer ad campaign, is a new Microsoft application with eight integrated programs, such as a word processor and an address book, for use in the home.

What’s new about it is the user interface, which employs more than a dozen animated cartoon characters that provide basic help information to neophyte and perennially befuddled operators.

The difference between existing user interfaces and Bob is primarily the characters, which, dare we say, are human-like in the way they respond to the operator.

Each character has a different comical personality and is programmed to recognize usage patterns.

Thus, someone who stumbles through a task will receive more assistance than someone who sprints through it. As well, the software remembers the user, so the next time he or she logs on, the appropriate level of help is provided.

Microsoft claims it is significant that help is offered automatically and in an encouraging, humorous manner. The result, it says, is users interact with the computer as if it were a living, responsive thing, which leads, ultimately, to a more pleasant computing experience.

Computer marketers have long said technophobia is one of the major barriers preventing households from embracing pcs the way they have microwave ovens and vcrs.

If programs such as Bob succeed in making people more comfortable with computer technology, the payoff for the industry would be enormous.

For starters, pc penetration into Canadian households, currently at about 30% and climbing, could rise more rapidly than ever expected.

This would lead, naturally, to increased demand for software and hardware peripherals. Further, on-line services and the Internet would see explosive growth as people everywhere began logging on and surfing to databases the world over.

The challenge – and a classic marketing one at that – is to somehow break through those barriers of natural resistance and turn a rather complex message into a ‘simple story well-told.’