The Surprising, Pointless Return of Microsoft's Clippy

Clippy, the unpredictable and intrusive virtual assistant Microsoft has spent the past decade trying to make us forget made a sudden and entirely unnessary reappearance this week.

Some well-intentioned Microsoft developers reached back into the Lethe waters of the software giant’s past and resurrected one of the company’s most notorious software features: Clippy, the glass-monitor tap-tap-tapping paperclip-cum-virtual-assistant character that was almost universally despised by all who knew it.

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As reported in The Verge this week, developers working on Microsoft Teams, Microsoft’s team messaging and collaboration service, pushed to the Microsoft Office Developer GitHub repository an animated collection of stickers of Clippy that users of the service could import into their Teams client.

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Clippy is controversial, to say the least. Introduced in Microsoft Office 97, Clippy—formally named Clippit—was a rough alpha-build of the kind of digital assistants that would eventually grow into services like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri.

Sitting off to the side of your Microsoft Word document, Clippy would detect certain contextual cues about what you were doing and give an unpredictable “tap-tap-tap” sound effect—mimicking a soft tap on the inside glass of your monitor—to draw your attention to solutions you didn’t ask for that addressed problems you likely didn’t have.

Its appearance was frequent and intrusive, tap-tap-tapping away to distract you from what you were doing to draw your attention for banal suggestions like reminding you that you should save your work regularly or suggest the use of boilerplate templates for writing a letter.

Start to write a letter, and Clippy would pop up, taking up a good portion of your workspace on a display that in 1996 was extremely valuable real estate.

For stressed-out college students or professionals pulling long hours into the dead of night, trying to finish documents or papers due in only a few of hours, the sudden appearance of Clippy and the unprompted reconfiguring of your workspace needed to set the stage for its unwanted suggestions quickly drove people to a kind of hatred for teh feature that are usually reserved for actual people who have wronged us, and it would happen again, and again, and again, almost like it was taunting us.

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For those of us who had to put up with it, we quickly learned how to shut it off permanently, apparently to such a degree that Microsoft couldn’t ignore the character’s unpopularity and began to slowly roll it back, first by leaving it off as the default setting, and then finally "firing" it entirely in 2007.

Why the developers of Microsoft Teams thought Clippy of all things deserved to have a comeback moment—beyond his value as a cautionary tale—is beyond me. Those of us who were old enough to have put up with him the first time around didn’t expect to see him pop up unexpectedly after all these years, but honestly, why should we have expected anything else? This is what it does.

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There is now an entire generation of post-Clippy Office users and programmers who know nothing of the character, or the visceral reactions it brings out in many people, so the seemingly harmless reappropriation of an internal company IP is understandable. Not surprisingly, Microsoft’s internal “brand police”, fully aware of the unpopularity of the character, immediately moved to have the sticker sheet taken off of Github and promptly returned Clippy to his former state of exile.

It took Microsoft a decade to put the whole Clippy-thing behind them, and the rest of us have moved on since then. At least we thought we had.

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Seeing Clippy take over my workspace once more this week—through news sites, blogs, and social media posts—, I couldn't help but hear an echo through time, reminding me that disasters are inevitable, that entropy never decreases, and that I should save my progress or else risk losing everything I’ve gained to the whim of an uncaring universe governed by the roll of cosmic dice.

Tap-Tap-Tap.

Tap-Tap-Tap.

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