Microsoft’s virtual assistant Clippy “isn’t making a comeback,” write the Verge, “but its spirit — now animated by AI — lives on…”
The words “it looks like you’re writing a letter, would you like some help with that?” didn’t appear at any point during Google’s recent demo of its AI office suite tools. But as I watched Aparna Pappu, Google’s Workspace leader, outline the feature onstage at I/O, I was reminded of a certain animated paperclip that another tech giant once hoped would help usher in a new era of office work…
New for the I/O presentation was Sidekick, a feature designed to understand what you’re working on, pull together details from across Google’s different apps, and present you with clear information to use as notes or even incorporate directly into your work. If Google’s Duet is designed to deal with the horror of a blank document, then Sidekick seems to be looking ahead to a future where a black AI prompt box could instead be the intimidating first hurdle. “What if AI could proactively offer you prompts?” Pappu said as she introduced the new feature. “Even better, what if these prompts were actually contextual and changed based on what you were working on…?”
Sidekick was shown summarizing a chain of emails. When prompted, it was able to pull out specific details from an associated Sheets spreadsheet and insert them into an emailed response. And finally, on Slides, Sidekick suggested generating speaker notes for the presenter to read from while showing the slides.
The feature looks like a modern twist on Clippy, Microsoft’s old assistant that would spring into action at the mere hint of activity in a Word document to ask if you wanted help with tasks like writing a letter. But perhaps more important is how Sidekick was shown offering this information. In Google’s demonstration, Sidekick is summoned by the user and doesn’t appear until they press its icon. That’s important since one of the things that annoyed people most about Clippy was that it wouldn’t shut the hell up. “These toon-zombies are as insistent on popping up again as Wile E. Coyote,” The New York Times observed in its original review of Office 97.
Though they share some similarities, Clippy and Sidekick belong to two very different eras of computing.
Brings back memories of that Saturday Night Live skit about Microsoft Word’s new assistant, Pushie the pushpin…