Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- What about Bob?

That's the burning question on the lips of millions of home computer owners who have noticed Microsoft's new household utility software package flooding into stores or advertised on television.

It's called Bob, apparently because Bob is such a familiar, unassuming name, and familiar and unassuming is how Microsoft Bob desperately wants to be perceived. It even says so on the package: ``Introducing Hard-working, Easy-going Software Everyone Will Use,'' with the word ``everyone'' underlined.

And if the words don't get the message across, maybe the logo will: the word ``Bob'' in large letters, but instead of an O there's a big yellow happy face wearing nerd-like black glasses. If this package could run up, wag its tail and lick your hand, it would.

In fact, once you've installed Microsoft Bob, a cheery pooch named Rover is your principal guide to software that offers help with household chores ranging from letter-writing and maintaining shopping lists to calendars, personal finances and (for a slight fee) e-mail. But if you don't like helpful dogs, don't worry; you can work with any of nine other FOBs (Friends of Bob's, what else?), a veritable menagerie of cartoon critters who bring different approaches to their mentoring functions.

Bob, by the way, is not aimed at the low-end PC user. The Windows-based package requires, as a minimum, a 486 with at least 8MB RAM and 32MB of available hard-disk space. If you want to use the software's on-line functions -- check-paying and/or e-mail -- you, of course, must have a modem, and if you want to hear clicks, squeaks, shuffling noises or the occasional English phrase spoken by a guide, you'll need a sound card with speakers or headphones.

Bob will run without problem on Windows 3.1, but it's also prepared for Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 95, the much talked-about new version of Windows. The installation instructions for Bob provide for both, as well as for installing from either CD-ROM or diskettes.

Once Bob is up and running, however, you'll never feel like you're using Windows again. The first thing you run into, in fact, is a door with a big brass knocker; click on it, and Rover sets you up as a Bob user by having you fill out a brief questionnaire.

You get a password, and Rover learns enough about you to start addressing you with a familiarity you never expected from a machine-made dog. I didn't mind ``ma'am'' too much, but I'm still wrestling with ``sis.''

Anyway, once you log in with your password, Rover escorts you inside to a room; the default is a fairly nondescript contemporary study, but both the room and decor can be changed (I found the post-modern look too stark and the castle too reminiscent of ``Beauty and the Beast'').

The room is filled with objects, including eight that start up Bob's principal components when clicked on. These include a calendar that will jog your memory about tasks and appointments, a letter writer, a checkbook, an address book, the e-mail program, a financial guide, a geography game called GeoSafari and a household manager in which to keep track of everything from health records and location of vital documents to combinations for combination locks (speaking as someone who periodically runs into old locks I can't open, I rather liked this idea).

But, in addition to the programs that are part of Bob, you can install your favorite DOS or Windows programs so that they can be launched from your room -- a feature that makes Bob far more appealing for families with both experienced and novice users.

There's nothing in Bob that somebody hasn't come up with before in terms of home computing. What Microsoft has done is to package it all in a cute, graphical user interface intended to allay the fears of the most rabid technophobes. Not only is it easy to use, its components are integrated so that the calendar, for example, will remind you of bills listed as due in your checking program.

Bob is nothing if not cute and easy to use. But it's also somewhat inefficient in puzzling ways. For example, if you're going to have a program that writes letters and is integrated with an address book, why not figure out a way to print out envelopes? You can print mailing labels easily, but if there are instructions for envelopes, I never ran into them.

In fact, Bob doesn't offer help in the traditional Windows way at all. If you can't figure out something, and Rover or whatever personal guide you work with doesn't offer it as an option, you're stuck. Bob doesn't even come with a manual -- just a magazine with installation instructions, some program basics and forms to apply for an e-mail account (via MCI Mail) for $4.95 a month and on-line checking for $9.95 a month. Most people don't read manuals anyway, but they're nice to have around if you want to look up something.

Although Bob purports to be for the entire family, the look and the cartoon characters suggest a younger user group. Yet there's no provision for word processing outside of letters -- no term paper or book report form, for example. And aside from the e-mail and checking programs, there's no phone in Bob's home, which I found somewhat surprising. I expected at least some simple communications program.

There's no Bob either, by the way. He's just a mythical construct intended to make you feel more chummy with this software package: Bill Gates, in announcing Bob, talked about what he called ``social interface technology,'' which is intended to make computing less, well, computerlike.

Chummy is the word for this slick package, but I suspect that many of the brand-new home PC owners out there aren't necessarily looking for companionship when they boot up their machines. If you've found your comfort level with Windows and DOS, then the $99 estimated retail price for Microsoft Bob might better be spent on software that is less user-friendly and more useful.

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