A few days ago, Microsoft gave Microsoft 365 Copilot its official name. This coming feature is meant to help people who work with Office apps make content in a better way. Microsoft hopes that Copilot will help users with AI-driven assistants make Word documents, fill out Excel spreadsheets, call up PowerPoint presentations, and write Outlook emails that people can then edit and publish.
Even though the online demos of Copilot look good, they did remind me of Office Assistant, which was another program that tried to help people who used Office. You may be more familiar with it by its most famous form: Clippy, the moving paperclip with big eyes.
When it first came out in Microsoft Office 97, more than 25 years ago, it was called Clippit, but users soon started calling it Clippy. There were also a lot of other Office Assistants avatars made, but none of them were as popular as Clippy. It was made by Kevan Atteberry, who used to work at Microsoft. In an interview with Motherboard in 2017, he said that Clippy came about because of the huge failure of Microsoft Bob, another productivity app. He said:
A documentary called “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap” seems to contradict the idea that focus groups liked Clippy before it came out. Roz Ho, who used to work for Microsoft, said.”
In any case, Clippy became a big problem for most Office users very quickly. The “assistant” would always pop up and say things like, “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like some help?” Many users didn’t want Clippy to show up or couldn’t stop him. When Office XP came out in 2002, Clippy and all his Office Assistant friends were kicked out because users didn’t like them.
But something strange has happened in the last few decades. Many people miss the strange icon Clippy, which used to show up when they wrote a Word document. Microsoft has taken advantage of this feeling of nostalgia for Clippy more than once in the last few years. As an April Fool’s joke, Clippy showed up on Office Online in 2014. In the fall of that same year, Windows Phone 8.1 with Cortana had an Easter Egg that showed Clippy. In 2021, Windows 11 added Clippy to its new set of emojis.
Microsoft even made a life-size Clippy costume that people could wear to cosplay as the assistant. In 2014, when Brad Sams, the former editor-in-chief of Neowin, went to visit Microsoft, this is exactly what happened. and for a few hours “became” Clippy.
What’s the big question? “What did Microsoft learn from the failure of Clippy?” Even the company’s current CEO, Satya Nadella, said that voice assistants, including Microsoft’s own Cortana, turned out to be “dumb as a rock.” Will Microsoft 365 Copilot be better than Clippy and Cortana? Will it be a smart Office assistant that won’t bother users? Microsoft is testing Copilot with a small group of early customers. If all goes well, Copilot will be the real Office assistant that Clippy was supposed to be.