Why Microsoft’s Revival of Clippy Is a Brilliant Move

It makes computers more friendly

Key Takeaways

  • Microsoft is bringing its much-maligned Clippy character back as an emoji.
  • I love the idea, but not the implementation of having virtual desktop assistants guide you through computing tasks. 
  • Several apps can help revive Clippy on your computer.
The Clippy icon from Microsoft.

Microsoft

Microsoft’s Clippy is back, and I may be one of the few people glad to see it. 

The company’s virtual assistant arrived in Windows 97 in the form of a small paper clip to help Microsoft Office users. Clippy was flicked into the wastebasket by Office 2007 after complaints that it was ineffective and annoying. 

But I stand up for Clippy as a welcome attempt at humanizing computer interfaces that now seems to have been all but forgotten with the trend towards cool minimalism. It’s true that Clippy didn’t accomplish much at times, but his cheery metal face was a reminder that there could be warmth in dealing with computers. 

"Here’s hoping the Clippy emoji will be a way to bring back animated software helpers."

Bridging the Early Digital Divide

As part of World Emoji Day last weekend, Microsoft said it plans to replace its standard paperclip emoji with an image of the more emotive Clippy. It’s part of a broader refresh of 1,800 emojis across all Microsoft apps and services, coming later this year.

“Sure, we may use fewer paper clips today than we did in Clippy’s heyday, but we couldn’t resist the nostalgic pull 😊,” Claire Anderson, art director and emojiologist for Microsoft, wrote in an announcement

Here’s hoping the Clippy emoji will be a way to bring back animated software helpers. An assumption was baked into many early web products that people needed to be introduced gently to the new digital age via things they were already familiar with. Take the much-maligned Apple Newton. It was not, as commonly assumed, a failed PDA, but a brilliant but flawed take on a technologically advanced writing pad. 

The Newton’s interface was a digital notebook, and there was almost no learning curve when using it. You picked up the stylus and started scribbling away.

Graphic designers talk about skeuomorphism, which describes how interface objects mimic their real-world counterparts in how they appear and how the user can interact with them. 

The ultimate example of skeuomorphic design might have come in the Sony Magic Link, which ran on the Magic Cap operating system. Everything in Magic Cap represents a real-life object, even to the extent that you would tap on a virtual fax machine to send faxes. 

Skeuomorphic design and virtual assistants have been replaced with a blank slate that might be visually efficient, but don’t do much in the way of hand-holding for people who aren’t familiar with software features. That’s where a new version of Clippy could come in handy. 

Clippy Nostalgia

I’m not the only one who mourns the passing of Clippy. There’s even software that lets you install replicas of Clippy on any website you choose. ClippyJS is a javascript application that allows the animated figure to move and 'talk' to the user. 

"We started thinking about the developers' state of mind when they created Clippy," the creators of ClippyJS wrote on their website. "Did they think it would really help people? It seems that Microsoft really believed that Assistants were the way of the future. We built Clippy.js over the weekend to share that fun and whimsy with everyone and to remind people to try new and risky things, even when they seem silly."

Android users aren’t left out of the Clippy nostalgia. You can download the free Clippy app on the Google Play store, which puts animated versions of the assistant characters on your screen. 

A Windows computer sitting on a countertop.

Piero Nigro / Unsplash

"Once started, your favorite agent will accompany you all the time," writes the app’s developer, Sebastian Chan. "Always on top of your screen, they will entertain you with funny animations and stunning sound effects."

I’d love to see Microsoft fully revive virtual digital assistants. I certainly could use help from an assistant like Clippy when navigating Microsoft’s office products. Even as a user for decades, I’m baffled by the various menu options and oddly placed tools. 

How about combining the smarts of the Cortana voice assistant system along with the animated character from the Halo series of video games? I’m sure that Clippy for the 21st century would be able to help me crank out Word documents better and faster.

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