Microsoft reanimates corpse of maligned Office Assistant "Clippy" to help Teams compete with Slack

The paperclip that everybody loves to hate is back as a sticker for Microsoft Teams, Redmond's answer to other collaboration giants.

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Microsoft Office users in the 1990s likely have less-than-kind memories of "Clippit," also known as "Clippy," one of the assistants introduced in Microsoft Office 1997. The assistant concept was the result of a "tragic misunderstanding of a truly profound bit of scientific research" into how humans interact with computers, prompting Microsoft to attempt anthropomorphizing the experience of computing, to prevent users from—among other things—reacting violently by hitting a computer when it does not perform as expected.

In practice, Clippy provided tenuously helpful advice based on Bayesian algorithms, such as responding with "It looks like you're writing a letter. Would you like help?" if a user starts typing "Dear," in a new document. Clippy, and the entire assistant platform, was disabled by default in Office XP, and removed entirely in Office 2007.

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Now, the Microsoft Office team has revived Clippy as an app to provide animated Clippy stickers in chats in Microsoft Teams, the Slack competitor bundled with Microsoft Office 365. Microsoft Teams absorbed Microsoft's previous workplace collaboration software, Skype for Business, in 2017. Skype for Business was introduced in 2015 as a rebranded version of Lync, which was introduced in 2010 as a rebranded Office Communicator.

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Image: Microsoft

The Clippy app is thankfully not included by default. It is available on GitHub (mirrored here) for Office 365 tenant administrators to deploy for their organization. Clippy is depicted in various situations, including "Happy Hour," as well as holding a coffee cup in front of its face(?), reminiscent of 2000-era Paul Thurott aesthetic.

Microsoft Teams celebrates its second birthday (under that name) this week, and is now used by more than 500,000 organizations worldwide, up from 329,000 in September 2018, according to ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley. Of these, 150 organizations have 10,000 or more Teams users.

Microsoft originally depended on Teams as value-add for Office 365 subscriptions, which initially caused problems, as organizations could not add individual users to Teams without purchasing a full Office 365 license for that user, complicating the addition of temporary and freelance workers. It took Microsoft a full year to address that problem. In July 2018, a free version of Teams was introduced, putting it in head-to-head competition with Slack.

Slack, in contrast, reports having "10 million daily active users and 85,000 paying customers," and filed paperwork with the SEC in February in the interest of going public.

Teams is well-positioned to go head-to-head against Slack, as organizations with an existing Office 365 subscription can use Teams at no additional cost, making the adoption of Slack a comparatively difficult budget item to justify.

More historical clippings

Clippy's first incarnation was actually in Microsoft Bob, an alternative GUI released in March 1995 for Windows 3.1, months ahead of Windows 95. The default assistant, then called "actors," was Rover, the assistant re-purposed for the file search utility in Windows XP.

Microsoft Bob has the ignominious distinction of being Microsoft's worst software product—aside from introducing the maligned assistant paradigm, the Comic Sans font was produced for (though not used in) Bob. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told CRN in 2006 that Bob was an undertaking "where we have decided that we have not succeeded and let's stop."

Microsoft has also open-sourced the Windows 3.0 File Manager, and Windows Calculator.

Update: Microsoft deleted the original repository on GitHub, a mirror is available here.

A Microsoft spokesperson told TechRepublic "Clippy has been trying to get his job back since 2001, and his brief appearance on GitHub was another attempt. While we appreciate the effort, we have no plans to bring Clippy to Teams."

Also see

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Image: Microsoft

By James Sanders

James Sanders is a staff technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI/ML, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on ...