Microsoft and Facebook's next big thing looks a lot like a famous 90's Microsoft flop

Microsoft and Facebook's next big thing looks a lot like a famous 90's Microsoft flop

Over the last week or so, both Facebook and Microsoft laid out their visions for the future of virtual reality, which they both see as the next big thing in tech.

Here's something funny, though. This next big thing looks a lot like Microsoft Bob, an operating system from 1995 that's also considered one of the biggest tech flops of all time.

Don't believe me? Okay. Here's Microsoft Bob:


Microsoft Bob


The idea behind Microsoft Bob was simple: Windows was too technical for mainstream users to understand, so Microsoft experimented with a simpler, more intuitive interface. At one point, Bob was headed up by no less than Melinda French - the Microsoft manager who would go on to marry Bill Gates.

"So our big idea with Microsoft Bob was to turn your desktop into something everyone understood: a house. To write, you clicked on a pen and paper; to check the date, you clicked the calendar on the wall - that type of thing," as Melinda Gates described the project in a recent LinkedIn post.


Keep that in mind as you watch this video showing Facebook's revamped Oculus Home, the interface for its Oculus virtual reality headsets, which will be released in beta this December:

And here's the Microsoft Mixed Reality Cliff House, which is how you'll access different programs in Mixed Reality on Windows 10 when a big update drops on October 17:

windows mixed reality


So maybe the notion of having a house as the computer interface was just ahead of its time. Maybe you just needed to strap a headset on to feel like you were actually in the house, first.

Either way, it was too late to save Microsoft Bob. The reviews were brutal, with most reviewers decrying it as too simplistic to get anything done. And many users found that the cartoon animals that acted as Bob's help system were too cloying and annoying. After about a year on the market, Bob was quietly discontinued. 

"Our failures tend to result from markets being too small," joked Bill Gates in a 1997 newspaper column. "Unfortunately, the [Microsoft Bob] software demanded more performance than typical computer hardware could deliver at the time and there wasn't an adequately large market. Bob died."


bill melinda gates

Wikimedia Commons

Bill and Melinda Gates

But apart from the union of Bill and Melinda Gates, Bob had a few other lasting effects: Bob's cast of cartoon characters would evolve into Clippy, the reviled help assistant in old versions of Microsoft Office. Bob was also responsible for the creation of Comic Sans, now considered one of the world's most hated fonts.

"So you're welcome for that," writes Melinda Gates in her 2017 LinkedIn post.


You can read Gates' full post on Bob, and the lessons learned from its failure, over at LinkedIn. In the meantime, hey, what's old is new again.

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