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'Bob' is helpful and cute, but way too slow for most

Bob is cute.

Bob is friendly.

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See Bob run.

Very slowly.

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And that's it in a nutshell for Microsoft's earnest attempt to create a new computing environment for people who don't like computers.

Bob isn't a person. He's a program, or actually eight simple but well-integrated programs designed for home computer users, wrapped up in a homey little shell that sits on top of Microsoft Windows.

Microsoft chose the name Bob because it sounds friendly (everyone knows a Bob). The design of the package is based on research by two Stanford professors who believe that people enjoy a "social" environment.

In digital terms, this means most of us would rather have computers that act more like people than machines.

So what you get for $99 and 30 megabytes worth of hard disk real estate is a friendly, on-screen home, with rooms you can decorate with furniture, plants, toys, tools, pictures, knickknacks, lamps and program icons that sit on shelves or tabletops, waiting for you to click on them. Each member of your family can set up his or her own room, decorated to individual tastes. My older boy set up shop in the sun room. I took the attic. I guess that tells you something.

More importantly, you get the services of a cute, friendly, animated guide who walks you step-by-step through each program, offering help, information and remarkably intelligent advice. You can choose from a dozen guides, each with a distinct personality. Everyone starts off with Rover, a disgustingly friendly and eternally cheerful mongrel, but I eventually settled on Scuzz, a hip, cantankerous, basketball-dribbling rat who has an annoying habit of saying "I'm putting the pedal to the metal" whenever you launch a program. Would that this were so, but we'll save that for later.

None of this requires much effort. You don't have to know anything about pull-down menus, dialog boxes or anything else that new Windows users struggle with. Bob doesn't even come with a manual. He and his guides hide all that stuff and hold your hand with questions, check-off boxes and other devices that allow you to set up your home the way you want it.

By today's standards, Bob's application programs are simple stuff. There's a Letter Writer, Address Book, Calendar and To-Do List, Checkbook, Household Manager, Financial Guide and E-mail, plus a quiz game called GeoSafari. What's impressive is how well they work together, sharing information and minimizing the work you have to do.

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For example, once you've entered a name and address in the Address Book, you can find it quickly and paste it into a letter, complete with your preferred salutation. Mail merge is almost instantaneous. Just click on a bunch of addresses (or an entire address book) and you can send the same letter to as many people as you like.

Enter Aunt Rhoda's birthday in your address book or set up a recurring bill payment in the checkbook and Bob puts reminders on your calendar. Establish an auto-maintenance schedule in Household Manager and Bob puts each item on the appropriate day's To-Do List. Software publishers often talk about this kind of integration, but Bob delivers it seamlessly.

Aside from its excellent integration with Address Book, the Letter Writer offers strictly no-frills word processing. Designed basically for creating letters and other simple documents, it comes with a variety of templates, borders and clip art, but don't expect any fancy formatting beyond basic typeface, point size and alignment settings.

Checkbook is a well-done financial manager (obviously with a little code borrowed from Microsoft Money) that will track checking and savings transactions, credit card accounts, bills and the like, with a variety of spending and income reports. You can also use the program to pay your bills electronically through an on-line service, available for a small monthly fee.

The Address Book is also well-conceived and looks like its namesake. You enter names, addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, salutations on what appears to be a standard address book page. The book is tabbed alphabetically, just like the real thing. You can also enter notes about each person that can be used to build mailing lists. For example, if you enter the word "family" on the notes line for all your relatives, you can build a family list in about two seconds and use Letter Writer's mail-merge feature to turn out a mailing to all your kin. You can create multiple address books and mailing lists. The program comes with a variety of useful lists for people who want to sound off, including addresses of congressmen, airlines, newspapers, automakers and TV networks.

The E-mail program uses MCI Mail (you have to have a modem and establish a special MCI account before you can use it). Household Manager and Financial Guide provide reference information that ranges from saving for college to removing crayon stains from the carpet. They also allow you to set up all kinds of lists, including household inventories and baseball card collections. Compulsives will love it.

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While all of this works as advertised, Bob requires a lot of computing horsepower for what it does -- a machine with an 80486 processor and eight megabytes of RAM. Even then, it is outrageously slow as it switches from application to application. Somehow, it seems bizarre to spend a chunk of money on high-end hardware just to have Ruby the dyspeptic parrot squawk while she tells you how to find Aunt Rhoda in the address book. Even inexperienced users will eventually want more than Bob offers -- a better word processor, a spreadsheet, a general purpose database or whatever. And many will grow tired of answering constant questions and dealing with endless prompts.

You can use Bob to launch other programs; in fact, Bob is what's known in the trade as a Windows Shell. Bob will find programs for you and put their icons on a shelf in your room. But once you've learned to use any real Windows program, you probably won't need Bob's protection from the elements.

Microsoft will try to get computer manufacturers to bundle Bob with machines designed for the home market. There's nothing wrong with this. Bob is friendly and will undoubtedly make life easier for the computer-challenged.

But I hope that this doesn't come at the expense of Microsoft Works, the company's excellent integrated word processor, spreadsheet, database and communications program.

Works is a fixture in home computer bundles today, and it has the ability to do real work. I'd hate to see it replaced by Scuzz the Rat and Java, the coffee-drinking dinosaur.

Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Sun.


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