The Office Assistant is a discontinued intelligent user interface for Microsoft Office that assisted users by way of an interactive animated character which interfaced with the Office help content. It was included in Microsoft Office for Windows (versions 97 to 2003), in Microsoft Publisher and Microsoft Project (versions 98 to 2003), Microsoft FrontPage (versions 2002 and 2003) and Microsoft Office for Mac (versions 98 to 2004).
The default assistant in the English Windows version was named Clippit (commonly nicknamed Clippy), after a paperclip. The character was designed by Kevan J. Atteberry on a Macintosh computer. Clippit was the default and by far the most notable Assistant (partly because in many cases the setup CD was required to install the other assistants), which also led to it being called simply the Microsoft Paperclip. The original Clippit in Office 97 was given a new look in Office 2000.
The feature drew a strongly negative response from many users. Microsoft turned off the feature by default in Office XP, acknowledging its unpopularity in an ad campaign spoofing Clippit. The feature was removed altogether in Office 2007 and Office 2008 for Mac, as it continued to draw criticism even from Microsoft employees.
According to Alan Cooper, the "Father of Visual Basic," the concept of Clippit was based on a "tragic misunderstanding" of research conducted at Stanford University, showing that the same part of the brain in use while using a mouse or keyboard was also responsible for emotional reactions while interacting with other human beings and thus is the reason people yell at their computer monitors. Microsoft concluded that if humans reacted to computers the same way they react to other humans, it would be beneficial to include a human-like face in their software. As people already related to computers directly as they do with humans, the added human-like face emerged as an annoying interloper distracting the user from the primary conversation.
First introduced in Microsoft Office 97, the Office Assistant was codenamed TFC during development. It appeared when the program determined the user could be assisted with using Office wizards, searching help, or advising users on using Office features more effectively. It also presented tips and keyboard shortcuts. For example, typing an address followed by "Dear" would cause the Assistant to appear with the message, "It looks like you're writing a letter. Would you like help?".
Apart from Clippit, other Office Assistants were also available:
- The Dot (a shape-shifting smiley-faced red ball)
- Hoverbot (a robot)
- The Genius (a caricature of Albert Einstein, removed in Office XP but available as a downloadable add-on)
- Office Logo (a jigsaw puzzle)
- Mother Nature (a globe)
- Scribble (an origami-esque cat)
- Power Pup (a superhero dog)
- Will (a caricature of William Shakespeare).
In many cases the Office installation CD was necessary to activate a different Office assistant character, so the default character, Clippit, remains widely known compared to other Office Assistants.
In Office 2000, the Hoverbot, Scribble and Power Pup assistants were replaced by:
- F1 (a robot)
- Links (a cat)
- Rocky (a dog)
The Clippit and Office Logo assistants were also redesigned. The removed assistants later resurfaced as downloadable add-ons.
The Microsoft Office XP Multilingual Pack had two more assistants, Saeko Sensei (冴子先生), an animated secretary, and a version of the Monkey King (Chinese: 孫悟空) for Asian language users in non-Asian Office versions. Native language versions provided additional representations, such as Kairu the dolphin in Japanese.
A small image of Clippit can be found in Office 2013 or newer, which could be enabled by going to Options and changing the theme to "School Supplies". Clippit would then appear on the ribbon.
The Office Assistant used technology initially from Microsoft Bob and later Microsoft Agent, offering advice based on Bayesian algorithms. From Office 2000 onwards, Microsoft Agent (.acs) replaced the Microsoft Bob-descended Actor (.act) format as the technology supporting the feature. Users can add other assistants to the folder where Office is installed for them to show up in the Office application, or install in the Microsoft Agent folder in System32 folder. Microsoft Agent-based characters have richer forms and colors, and are not enclosed within a boxed window. Furthermore, the Office Assistant could use the Lernout & Hauspie TruVoice Text-to-Speech Engine to provide output speech capabilities to Microsoft Agent, but it required SAPI 4.0. The Microsoft Speech Recognition Engine allowed the Office Assistant to accept speech input.
The Microsoft Agent components it required were not included in Windows 7 or later; however, they can be downloaded from the Microsoft website. Installation of Microsoft Agent on Windows 8 and Windows 10 is also possible. When desktop compositing with Aero glass is enabled on Windows Vista or 7, or when running on Windows 8 or newer, the normally transparent space around the Office Assistant becomes solid-colored pink, blue, or green.
Additional downloadable assistants
- Bosgrove (a butler)
- Courtney (a flying car driver)
- Earl (a surfboarding alien)
- Genie (a genie)
- Kairu the Dolphin, otherwise known as Chacha (available for East Asian editions, downloadable for Office 97)
- Max (a Macintosh Plus computer) (Macintosh)
- Merlin (a wizard)
- Peedy (a green parrot, which was ultimately reused in the first iteration of the notorious BonziBuddy software)
- Robby (a robot)
- Rover (a dog, also featured as Windows XP Search companion.)
- The Monkey King (available for East Asian editions, downloadable for Office 97)
The 1997 assistants can be downloaded from the Microsoft website.
Criticism and parodies
The program was widely reviled among users as intrusive and annoying, and was criticized even within Microsoft. Microsoft's internal codename TFC had a derogatory origin: Steven Sinofsky states that "C" stood for "clown", while allowing his readers to guess what "TF" might stand for. Smithsonian Magazine called Clippit "one of the worst software design blunders in the annals of computing". Time magazine included Clippit in a 2010 article listing the fifty worst inventions.
In July 2000, the online comic strip User Friendly ran a series of panels featuring Clippit. In 2001, a Microsoft advertising campaign for Office XP included the (now defunct) website officeclippy.com, which highlighted the disabling of Clippit in the software. It featured the animated adventures of Clippit (voiced by comedian Gilbert Gottfried) as he learned to cope with unemployment ("X… XP… As in, ex-paperclip?!") and parodied behaviors of the Office assistant. Curiously, one of these ("Clippy Faces Facts") uses the same punchline as one of the User Friendly comic strips. These videos can be downloaded from Microsoft's website as self-contained Flash Player executables. Clippit ends up in an office as a floppy disk ejecting pin.
There is a Clippit parody in the Plus! Dancer application included in Microsoft Plus! Digital Media Edition which is later included as Windows Dancer in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. The dancing character Boo Who? is wearing a ghost outfit, roughly having the shape of Clippit's body, with a piece of wire visible underneath. Occasionally, the white sheet slips, and reveals the thin curve of steel. The description mentions "working for a short while for a Redmond, WA based software company, where he continued to work until being retired in 2001". Clippit is also included as a player character in Microsoft Bicycle Card Games and Microsoft Bicycle Board Games. It was also used in the "Word Crimes" music video by "Weird Al" Yankovic.
On April 1, 2014, Clippit appeared as an Office Assistant in Office Online as part of an April Fools' Day joke. Several days later, an easter egg was found in the then-preview version of Windows Phone 8.1. When asked if she likes Clippit, the personal assistant Cortana would answer "Definitely. He taught me how important it is to listen." or "What's not to like? That guy took a heck of a beating and he's still smiling." Her avatar occasionally turned into a two-dimensional Metro-style Clippit for several seconds. This easter egg is still available in the full release version of the Windows Phone operating system and Windows 10. A Clippit easter egg is also found in Apple's personal assistant, Siri, although it is less flattering, saying "Clippy?! Don't get me started." or "The less said about Clippy the better."
On April 1, 2015, Tumblr created a parody of Clippit, Coppy, as an April Fools joke. Coppy is an anthropomorphized photocopier that behaved in similar ways to Clippit, asking the user if they want help. Coppy would engage the reader in a series of pointless questions, with a dialogue box written in Comic Sans MS, deliberately designed to be extremely annoying.
In the ninth episode of Season 3 of HBO's Silicon Valley, originally aired in June, 2016, a new animated character called "Pipey", clearly based on Microsoft's Clippit, provides help to users of the Pied Piper platform.
In popular culture
After featuring Clippit's tomb in a movie to promote Office 2010, the character was relaunched as the main character of the game Ribbon Hero 2, which is an interactive tutorial released by Microsoft in 2011. In the game, Clippy needs a new job and accidentally goes inside a time machine, travelling to different ages solving problems with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Other Office Assistant names are also featured during the "Future Age" as planets of the future solar system.
In 2015 a music video was released for the song "Ghost" (by Delta Heavy) in which the abandoned Clippit is stuck between the software of the mid-nineties but then travels to the contemporary web and regains his place by hacking himself into any digital system.
Clippit is portrayed as a romantic interest in "Conquered by Clippy", a comedic/erotic story by Leonard Delaney.
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- Clippy discontinued in Office 12
- Download additional Agents Office 97 (Quiet Office Logo, Kairu, Earl, F1)
- Download Office 97 Assistant: Kairu the Dolphin
- Clippy returns in Microsoft's April Fools' pranks
- Luke Swartz — Why People Hate the Paperclip – Academic paper on why people hate the Office Assistant
- Microsoft Agent Ring - download more unofficial characters
- "Farewell Clippy: What's Happening to the Infamous Office Assistant in Office XP" (April 2001) at Microsoft.com