Clippy designer was too embarrassed to include him in his portfolio
Love him or loathe him, the default Office Assistant remains an icon of personal computing history
Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer mused words from the Bhagavad Gita following the first detonation of an atomic bomb: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
The creator of Clippy, on the other hand, felt some embarrassment when he found that Microsoft had shipped the character with Office 97 on Windows.
Those of a certain vintage will remember the anthropomorphized paperclip, officially called the Office Assistant and also known as Clipit, with either fond nostalgia or burning hatred. The character's job was to pre-empt what the user was attempting to do and assist them.
The most notorious example being: "It looks like you're writing a letter? Would you like help?" This was followed by a number of options: "Get help with writing the letter"; "Just type the letter without help"; and "Don't show me this tip again".
We suspect many wished never to see the metallic smirk, cocking eyebrows, and quirky animations ever again – particularly if they weren't writing a letter to begin with.
All the same, Clippy persisted until Office 2007, where it was removed entirely after being disabled by default in the XP version and not installed in Office 2003.
Yet the character maintains an iconic status in the history of personal computing, and its designer, Kevan Atteberry, pops up now and then to hold up his hands and apologize.
Most recently, he spoke to YouTube channel Great Big Story and admitted he felt "so embarrassed" when the reviews started coming in.
Atteberry, nowadays an illustrator and graphic designer for kids' books, explained that in the '90s he was employed by Microsoft to create a bunch of characters for Microsoft Bob – "one of their biggest failures, it was software for people who were having their first computer experience."
Microsoft Bob was cool if you were a literal child at the time, but techies found little use for the condescending tone and cartoon UI. Though it never took off as a desktop, Microsoft seemed keen on humanizing computer interfaces, and ported the technology into the next version of the Office suite.
"We went through 260 character designs to get down to the 10 that shipped with the product," said Atteberry. Indeed, there were other options including The Dot, Hoverbot, The Genius, Scribble, and Power Pup among others, but Clippy rose to the top of the pile as the default.
"Coming up with Clippy was not as big of a stretch as you might think," he continued. "Well, it's obviously an office thing. I loved the simplicity of a paperclip as a character, I loved the flexibility, all the things I could do. I love the fact that I was just using the eyes because eyes can be so expressive, and, you know, it simplifies my work too, right?"
He said he would work through hundreds of designs including pencils, staplers and mugs then scan them in to work digitally on his Macintosh – a detail Microsoft would clearly prefer we weren't privy to.
The designs were then given to Stanford University psychologists who ran a study with the general public to find out which characters were most trustworthy and likeable.
"There were people there that were not happy that Clippy kept making it through every level," Atteberry mused.
He departed Microsoft soon after and lived on in blissful ignorance until he started hearing of Clippy's arrival in Windows. "The disdain for him was just incredible everywhere you turned," Atteberry said. "People just hated that paperclip. They wanted to turn him off, there's no way to turn him off, and his functionality was too basic and annoying for most people."
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Lest he revealed himself to be "that guy" who made computing's most irritating mascot, he said: "I would never, never include Clippy in my portfolio because I was so embarrassed of him."
But it wasn't all bad. Recalling the excitement of a client when he told her he created the animated goofball that had popped up on her Word document, he said: "Honestly Clippy has opened so many doors for me over the years. People are very receptive to it and now, you know, nobody hates Clippy now. He's on Simpsons and Family Guy and he shows up everywhere.
"I had no idea, you know, obviously how big he was going to be. I mean, holy cow, if I could have seen into the future and realized, I would have probably tried to get my contract written differently.
"He's a character that everybody understand his motive. He's a guy that just wants to help, and he's a little bit too helpful sometimes, and there's something fun and vulnerable about that. It doesn't matter if you like him or hate him. As long as you know who he is, I have cachet."
In the meantime, Microsoft plows ahead with its attempts to humanize computing as demonstrated by its multibillion-dollar faith in OpenAI and its GPT large langue model technology, which was recently fed into an AI-powered version of Bing, Microsoft's long-suffering search engine.
In other words, the specter of Clippy continues to annoy us to this day. What about you, dear reader? Are you #TeamClippy now that he's long dead and buried, or just glad he's a footnote in computing history? Let us know in the comments below. ®