Julie Larson-Green explains why Clippy was ahead of its time and Cortana is the future

Mark Coppock

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Microsoft’s Cortana personal digital assistant isn’t the company’s first attempt at offering customers a digital helping hand. Many moons ago, back when Microsoft Office was primarily on Windows and numbered in two digits (specifically, Office 97), the company introduce a much earlier and far less intelligent bot, Clippit. Universally panned as annoying and intrusive, “Clippy,” as the tool was more commonly called, was unceremoniously killed off in future versions of Office.

Business Insider spent some time talking to Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft Office’s Chief Experience Officer, was the one responsible for executing Clippy and tossing away the remains. According to Larson-Green speaking in a very understated tone:

We were just ahead of our time with the technology.

That’s perhaps an understatement, as Business Insider points out, because Clippy’s repertoire was exceedingly limited and underwhelming. Often, Clippy would jump in to make recommendations, such as “I see you’re writing a letter,” when nothing could have been further from the truth. The fact is, Clippy was terribly ineffective as a digital assistant and was more likely to drive a user to distraction than actually help get real work done.

Oh Clippy you handsome devil you

Contrast that with Microsoft’s much more evolved–and intelligent–Cortana, which utilizes the company’s incredibly powerful machine learning backend, and Bing search engine, to provide an increasingly powerful level of assistance that continues to grow in leaps and bounds. Not only that, but Cortana isn’t just a ghost in the Office machine, but rather resides throughout Microsoft’s own Windows 10 ecosystem and is increasingly present in iOS and Android as well.

Indeed, Microsoft’s Build 2016 development conference, which wraps up today, had everything to do with intelligent machines, not just Cortana but also Azure and a whole host of new bots and AI snippets that promise to make the company into the most forward-looking technology company when it comes to making machine learning into something we actually use on a day-to-day basis.

Today, Office has much better assistive tools built-in, including Smart Lookup and the “Tell me what you want to do” help functionality, that makes Clippy look like the useless distraction that it was. As Cortana continues to be fleshed out and Microsoft incorporates more and more of its–and other–machine intelligence services into Office, we’ll see the productivity suite become more and more helpful.

In a bigger-picture sense, Larson-Green says that she sees the intelligence and ability to learn that underpins apps like Cortana as a way to constantly make Office better, without the need to completely revamp the interface or add extraneous new features.

Office can and will make smarter suggestions over time — from “It looks like you’re writing a letter” to “It looks like you’re writing a job application,” plus maybe some formatting suggestions inspired by Microsoft’s own data. Or maybe PowerPoint will help you design your slides to be more eye-catching, based on how long people looked at other peoples’ slides.

Going forward, it’s clear that Microsoft is fleshing out the vision that it first attempted to implement back in Office 97. Just like the “Tablet PC” was a failure because the technology wasn’t ready for prime time–screens, batteries, miniaturization, etc.–but has since been realized and reimagined with the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, so too is Microsoft original vision of computer-aided productivity now becoming reality with all of the machine learning tools that are being incorporated into actual shipping projects.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Clippy lives on in spirit[/pullquote]

Larson-Green might have killed off Clippy, but Microsoft didn’t give up on the little tool’s descendants. As Build 2016 demonstrated, Clippy lives on in spirit, and we’re looking forward to seeing what Microsoft comes up with next.