I cons come, and icons go. And in today’s sped-up, high-tech world, some come and go pretty fast. Last month we were told that Sony plans to euthanize its groundbreaking robotic dog Aibo, who at not quite 7 years old is still a pup in shelf-life terms.
Now we learn of the pending forced retirement of Jeeves, the ageless valet whom the Internet search engine Ask Jeeves.com borrowed from the late British comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse 10 years ago and who has served as the popular Web site’s mascot ever since. Instead of Asking Jeeves, users will now be advised simply to Ask. (We’ve got a query for Ask: Isn’t that a bit, you know, blunt?)
It’s a sad time for fans of the virtual valet. Jeeves put a human face on the often impersonal World Wide Web. He was fun, setting his site apart from every other search engine except for that quirky world-beater Google. He provided mild entertainment not long ago by getting a makeover, shedding a few kilograms and trading his dorky, old-fashioned striped jacket for a svelte black number. He has even appeared as a giant balloon in Macy’s famous Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, which is more than you can say for Google’s letters. He was always smiling, never boring.
Nor was Jeeves just a handsome face. He had a job to do and he did it well, embodying the spirit of helpfulness, the desire to smooth paths and open doors, that Ask Jeeves was all about. Remember? The whole point of the company, back when it was founded in 1996, was that people seeking information would be able to post their queries in plain English — what techies call “natural language” — instead of having to fuss with key words and connectors and other flimflam. Indeed, it made a lot of money selling the technology that made this possible to other companies, including Dell and Toshiba.
Jeeves was part of that success, an image that stuck in people’s minds and helped bring them flocking to the site in large numbers — large enough to make the company the world’s fifth-ranked search engine, according to Nielsen NetRatings, which keeps track of such esoterica.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Fifth-ranked — as any Olympic athlete will tell you — is far from the gold standard. Moreover, that ranking includes not just Ask Jeeves but the Ask Jeeves-owned My Way engine, and represents in any case a very distant fifth. The latest figures show Google’s share of hits at nearly 50 percent, Yahoo’s at just under 25 percent, MSN hovering above 10 percent and Ask Jeeves and My Way, combined, at under 5 percent.
That’s not bad, but it could be better. The writing was bound to be on the wall for Jeeves, and it apparently has been ever since the company was acquired by IAC/Interactive almost a year ago. The decision to retire the iconic valet was reportedly made last September but was not implemented until this month to give the new bosses time to measure how users would feel about it.
It seems users felt upset enough to mount a brief Save Jeeves campaign but were not otherwise vocal enough to affect the verdict. It was gold-watch time for Mr. Jeeves. Actually, as regular users know, the site has been known as Ask.com rather than Ask Jeeves.com for several years already, so this month’s announcement was really just the final slam of the door.
There is another way of looking at this petty saga, however. Ask Jeeves’s Jeeves was never really Wodehouse’s Jeeves, the original, smooth, savvy “gentleman’s gentleman,” his eye gleaming “with the light of pure intelligence,” who starred in so many novels — which is doubtless why Wodehouse’s executors eventually stopped worrying about the mute imitation on the Web. They must have known he would prove a flash in the pan. The virtual Jeeves is, in truth, a bit of a stiff. Contrast him with the prototype, in a scene from “My Man Jeeves” (1919), as his employer sees him:
“Jeeves — my man, you know — is really a most extraordinary chap. So capable. Honestly, I shouldn’t know what to do without him. On broader lines he’s like those chappies who sit peering sadly over the marble battlements at the Pennsylvania Station in the place marked ‘Inquiries.’ You know the Johnnies I mean. You go up to them and say: ‘When’s the next train for Melonsquashville, Tennessee?’ and they reply, without stopping to think, ‘Two-forty-three, track ten, change at San Francisco.’ And they’re right every time. Well, Jeeves gives you just the same impression of omniscience.”
Type the question about train-departure time into Ask.com and you get a link to Knoxville, Tennessee, Train Tours. We’re sorry, but it’s just not the same. The icon lives; it’s only an impersonator who has retired.
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