Whither Clippy?

Remember Clippy, the Microsoft Office Assistant? If you're like me, you remember Clippy because you hated his guts. Figuring out how to do basic stuff in Microsoft products is (often) frustrating and difficult, but being patronized by a grinning cartoon paperclip while doing so was infuriating. The fact that Clippy seemed to offer help at all the wrong times — well, that just added fuel to the fury. When Clippy joined his anthropomorphic predecessor Microsoft Bob in the UI dustbin, every user became a little happier and more productive.

Clippy came to mind when I was in Japan, a nation and culture richly populated with animated characters. On every surface, there are characters — talking penguins, inflatable dogs, instructive manga characters — and their cumulative presence seems to make the environment more engaging and friendly.

I saw this little guy in the UI of a Nintendo DS when I toured ATR, the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Kyoto.

japanese_character.jpg I don't know what he's saying, but he sure is cute.

So, after my trip to Japan, I'm worried that we've taken the wrong lesson from the shortcomings of Clippy. There must be an appropriate a place for characters in interactive systems that are not simply games — not all interactive systems, but some, maybe?

My question: Can anyone point me to some good implementations of characters in non-game software? Or recommend some best practices?