Brand New Office



Unpublished, 1998

Office AssistantsOnce upon a time, people got excited about new model cars. "How big are the tail fins?", they'd ask. "Does it have bucket seats?"

Nowadays, this year's car looks more or less the same as last year's. The action has moved on to a less ostentatious consumer item: computer software. The huge launch for Microsoft's Windows95 heralded a new era in consumer folklore. With a little help from the Rolling Stones, the 'revolutionary' operating system presented itself to the MTV generation as a ticket to the new global village.

Now comes the new Microsoft Office97. What story does it tell?

It certainly needs a good story. Coming hot on the heels of Office95, the latest suite of Microsoft applications is an expensive item even for those upgrading.

The improvements in software architecture are hard for average users to appreciate. While under the hood there is no doubt better integration of applications, the chassis itself has undergone radical change. The screen design has been flattened. Gone with the 'buttons' is the mechanical feel that bevelled toolbars simulated. Instead, the menus appear as moveable strips. This is part of an overall trend Microsoft design, replacing its drop shadows and bevels with flush borders.

I find as a writer that the new Word has useful enough features. The document map is a particularly good way of working on a large document and the Intellimouse wheel is like writing with roller-blades. The provision for Australian measures and language is particularly heartening.

The real surprise is the little creature in the corner of the screen called 'Office Assistant'. This animated paper clip sits watching my every move. Its half-lidded eyes and raised eyebrows suggest an all-knowing demeanour. There's even a resemblance to Humphrey in Yes Ministerbackroom intrigue masked by amusing asides.

Clippit takes special delight in screen acrobatics during routine tasks like saving and printing. Yet it rarely misses an opportunity to display its own cleverness: the appearance of a light globe and coquettish eye-blinking signal yet another helpful shortcut.

As if this piece of arrogant stationary weren't enough, the Office97 comes equipped with eight other sprites, from cats and dogs to Shakespeare and Einstein. How did a serious desktop get turned into a digital menagerie?

The first candidate reason is a popular love of animations. Films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Space Jam reveal attempts to thread these wily creatures into everyday life. Now they've bred a new range of pixel pixies.

But to incorporate this merriment into a desktop indicates a real change of heart at Redmond. The previous suite, Office95, was a celebration of personal efficiency. Its Personal Information Manager (PIM) Schedule with add-on Seven Habits promoted the Benjamin Franklin ideal of the 'good plan'. Though a little too earnest, it did attempt to admit PIMs into the time-honoured tradition of self-management.

Office97 offers no such edification. Its evolutionary history is linked more closely to the Microsoft children's program, Creative Writer, with its cute sound effects and helper named McZee.

No doubt there's a use for this small screen entertainment. Even the most computer-phobic office workers will enjoy the amusing antics and gather important tips along the way. But as the first generation of mainstream intelligent agents, these Office 'buddies' represent a disturbing trend in software design. They favour entertainment at the expense of real understanding. As Jason Lanier, the inventor of virtual reality, said in a recent Wired article, 'If an agent seems smart, it might really mean that people have dumbed themselves down.' These critters are too smart for their own glitches.

Office97 is a new model software suite with tangible improvements in chassis and engine. Just remember to turn off the backseat driver!