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Microsoft Closing Firefly 62

Next week Microsoft will shut down Firefly. For those who don't know, Firefly was responsible in large part for popularizing collaborative filtering, something online retailers such as Amazon and CDNow are now also utilizing. It's a shame to see it go. Microsoft has apparently taken the code and is using it for the soon-to-be-launched Microsoft Passport site which lets people give information once and buy merchandise from vendors without needing to type it in again.
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Microsoft Closing Firefly

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  • It's only when we combine them collecting personal information and unique hardware ID's that we can truly be scared.

    Um, between Passport and the PIII chip.... I think it may be time to be truly scared already.

    Mind you, I refuse to enter my info on a MS page, and I will never buy a PIII chip, or even accept one for free. You would need to pay ME to use one...

  • Interesting. I tried firefly fairly early as well (before they became BigNote and all that passport crap), but I don't recall their recommendations being very good - but my recollection is kind of fuzzy - I didn't spend much time on the site - just played with the music recommender (I was already spending too much time on IRC to enter another online community).

    Have you used anything since then that's produced good recommendations?

  • In the old days it was called "ringo". I remember using around 1994/1995 and getting turned on to lots of music. I'd love to get something this simple and and useful running again.
  • The essence of firefly is great. (never implemented nicly as far as i know). your purchashes or choices put you into a group of people... then you could get data on what sort of that group also liked. I like the idea, I'd love it if my choices of url, suddenly gave me links that *really* did work for me... Not because of the *subject matter* but because of my affinity to a particiular group of like minded people... I started working on this once before i knew about ff... it is a project in need of a maintainer! I wonder if MS will use it to recommend stuff to you... it might actually work, youd only get *exactly* waht you want to know about... now that is the future of advertising on the net if you ask me. Can it be done? Walter
  • I went there a couple of times when it first came out, and proceeded to answer a couple of hundered questions....all about popular artists that I couldn't care less about (don't get me wrong, I don't mind (some) popular music, I just don't willingly purchase it). 2 hours later, it gave me a list of artists that not only had I already heard of, but that I also didn't like.

    I then proceeded to head over to usenet and look at groups like and see what the people there tend to listen to. They have never steered me wrong yet. Plus, thanks to mp3's and the web, I can now get a feel for what a group sounds like before I spend 16-30 bucks on a CD (I have to order a lot of things as imports, thanks to the backward music climate in this country, (the US for any of you who are interested))

    All in all, it seemed like firefly was for people who didn't want to expend the effort to attempt to find things on their own.

    The smaller places that sell cds over the internet are much more helpful in that they are staffed by humans who are fans of the music they sell. Not only can they tell you what you would like if you already liked a certain artist, they can tell you which cd to start with. This is much more useful than an agent could ever be. is my friend =)

    With all that said, I can't really comment on the community that sprung up around firefly, as I never really visited it. I'm just saying that the technology never really impressed me.

  • I'm not alone here: I answered RINGO's questions, and once or twice, it actually came up with an artist that was a) new to me, and b) good. I read about Patti Maes and the culture of Firefly in WIRED. And slowly but surely, the "cool site of 96" became a ubiquitous technology.

    But now that collaborative filtering and its cousins have become ubiquitous, Firefly is simply obsolete. For sure, I don't like the idea of that kind of community-based (or rather, community-built) enterprise coming with a price-tag, but the people behind its innovation took the money and ran years ago.

    In the meantime, have a look at this project: the Remembrance Agent []. It's a smarter data-mine; it locks into Emacs; it's open-source; and it's part of a cool project for wearable computers. I like it lots.
  • Microsoft rapes and pillages another useful technology for its own good......
  • The problem here is that from a technologists' view, the GOAL is to get new ideas/technologies OUT THERE. From a business' point of view, the GOAL is to PERFORM economically by offering value to potential customers.

    Sometimes that goal is indirectly achieved by destroying competitors. This tends to be very effective in the short-run, but is harder to sustain in the long run as you're effectively limiting consumer choice. [which, ahem, I think the DOJ noticed...]

    In any case, the key principle for business is to be "market-focused". If two technologies are near-identical in the *VALUE* they provide to users, then there is a moral business case to put one of those technologies to rest.

    In Firefly's case, they are, I believe, using some of firefly's technology in their own Passport site. The technology lives on, the business gets to remove one extra layer of indirection from the market.

    This was probably the "right" decision.
  • In the beginning, FireFly was a research project at the MIT media lab. And FireFly was good.

    At the time, it existed only as a music recommendation program. (It was called something else at the time, I forget what). You rated artists you like and hate, and based on your ratings and others' ratings, it would give you the "top 5 artists you'd probably like". The more artists you rated, the more accurate the results. And it was always right, at least for me. It introduced me to a LOT of music I would have otherwise probably never heard (or even heard of). Of course in the early days a larger percentage of the users were into non-mainstream music (like I am).

    Then, they got some venture capital funding or something and created a company/web site called FireFly. It started to go a little more mainstream, and they started adding virtual community features to the site. All of which distracted from their primary strength, the music recommendation system. And they made changes to it as well, adding more of a random element to its' recommendations. Instead of giving you the calculated top five, it would give you five "recommendations" that would change every time you visited. At this point I started losing interest... the recommendations were not always spot-on.

    Later they decided they wanted to sell this collaborative filtering technology to others. They shutdown the FireFly site & they turned over the music recommendation system and its database to Firefly started catering to the marketers with its technology. At this point I completely lost interest in the company. And I didn't like what Launch did to the recommendation system.

    So now I hear M$ has bought and squashed FireFly. Yawn.
  • Get a load of the bowl job, Marge!

    (sorry, couldn't resist)
  • Keep an eye on "Vulcan Ventures" too.

    It's Paul Allen's investment/venture capital co. They have been buying pretty much any cable companies they can get their hands on. My guess is that Bill and Paul have spend more than one night talking about how they can control the media both from the desktop (or settop-through CE) over the cable, on the server and in the browser. Thank god for grass roots, hippie "share the love" movements like Linux. (please, don't flame for silly little jokes..)
  • I fail to see the logic behind this. It's not OK, for a for-profit enterprise to keep your credit card number and address, but it is OK to give a bunch of bankers access to your financial records and home address so that they can issue your credit card number in the first place. Face it, if there's going to be business taking place in this world it's going to happen through for-profit channels.

    It's not that I don't think that MS is sleazy, but at the same time I am sitting here with my wallet containing Visa cards issued by Citibank and Associates. These companies have equally bad records for expanding well beyond the sphere of business that they origionally started in and buying out all of their smaller competition.

    The moral of the story is that if you want to buy stuff online, you're stuck with the process being coordinated by scum that's just out there to make a buck. Who cares if it's MS or MBNA it's all the same rat race if you ask me.
  • Oh, great - if this is the case, I can see a few scenarios:

    1. It never works - so many servers are hitting it trying to authenticate users that it repeatedly crashes (ala the crack W2K contest).

    2. It works, but security is so crappy that someone cracks the machine - sucessfully - and gains access to everyone's login and password for all of the servers using M$ Passport.

    3. Bill Gates gets bored one day and decides to spend other peoples money by using other people's logins - in the process ordering 25 new toilets for his house.

    I think a centralized registry is a good idea - but only when it is my data on my machine.
  • And it did kick ass. I always wondered what happened to that - for music suggestions, it always seemed to come back with something that I really liked, and I definitely extended a few branches of my musical-appreciation tree as a result of a few minutes spent on HOMR.

    I wonder if there are alternatives to HOMR around out there now? It'd be cool to have an Open Source HOMR, and what with the MP3 scene being what it is these days, it could result in some nice, organized, instant gratification music appreciation...

  • your IP has been logged and sent to the NT servers of gray aliens living underground in new mexico.
  • >How else can I explain their insistence that, among recommendations for Mel Brooks movies and Terry Pratchett novels and MST3K episodes and Beautiful South albums (the kinds of which I've purchased from Amazon in the past) that I'd "really like" the Tony Blanks Tae-Bo tape?! (Maybe it's a subtle hint from Amazon considering I've bought lots of videos from them?)

    maybe its a hint from amazon that you're getting a little flabby?
  • My experiences with recommenders such as Firefly's, and CDNOW's have been lackluster at best, and flat out lousy at worst. (This is of particular interest to me as I implemented a functionally similar (though interally VERY different) system as my senior thesis project last year.. (Now that I've graduated, it's offline while I wait for DSL (doh)))

    Have you guys seen good results with these systems (or anybody else's for that matter)?

    I have several theories as to what problems exist with the sorts of approaches that I've seen in commercial usage, but (before I open my big mouth) would like to hear whether their failure to offer me reasonable suggestions is just 'cause I'm some kinda freak, or in fact representitive of the rest of the system.

  • >> -like- the idea of a passport service to save me lots of dumb-ass repetative typing.
    >>But this is a function for a non-profit org . There is no
    >>bloody way I will give that info to MS or it's ilk.
    >>They simply cannot be trusted for the full term, whatever promises they will make today.

    The only problem is...How will you know when any company on the internet isn't sending the data you gave them to Microshaft (oops I mean Microsoft)!!!!!! Keep that in mind. If Microsoft has all that data, be careful ... that could be VERY dangerous. Can we say...Microsoft's information Brokerage service? Anythign for a cost!
  • Firefly, CDNOW, and Amazon have all tried to make 'intelligent' recommendations by demographic means (by which I mean they say "who else liked what you like, and what else did they like?"). These all generally don't work very well, and the more they're used the worse they're going to get.

    I think they're using some kind of neural networks to boil down a large ammount of data into a small number of recommendations. Neural nets are notorious for being sneaky - if there's a way of coming up with a clever yet still useles solution, it's a good chance that a neural net will find it. (A real person wouldn't think of it because it's useless (there ARE real people who are not detered by this fact)) Here they learned that they can 'cheat' by recommending the most popular music - if everybody else likes X and I like Y, It's better just to recommend X than using its limited capacity to discern what Y' is.

    This is compounded with the problem that if people aren't familliar with a recommended CD or book they're likely to just skip it and leave it unrated rather than shelling out $15+ to see if CDNOW's AI is any good, so massively popular items are the only things it even has a significant data set for. Suddenly it's not worth my bother - If I want to hear massively popular music, I'll turn on the radio or emptyV or whatever, rather than ask some stupid program what IT thinks I'll like.

    To its credit Firefly USED to be able to understand that I wasn't so big on stuff that was too full of guitars (though it forgot this as more data and more noise was added).

    It's a difficult problem - I don't necessarily want its recommendations to be similar to what I already said I like, just to be more stuff I like. In fact, if it's too similar I won't buy it unless I'm a collector or reviewer. (How many SQL books does one person need? I may like Bjork, but do I need all her singles and japanese import versions with one extra track? maybe not..)

    It'll be a while until somebody gets this problem solved.

  • > Microsoft said that the company would welcome
    > any constructive suggestions from Firefly
    > community members.
    > "When they provide us with some actionable
    > suggestions, we will be looking into them,"
    > Miller said.

    I guess Microsoft is getting used to the process that gets them into court.
  • Yes you can block the serial number, and then it can be unblocked again. Interesting....
  • That is not a copyright violation, that's a quotation, and it's covered under the doctrine of "fair use".

    (And it sure would be nice if the boundaries of fair use were outlined for audio samples as well as it is for literary quotes and for fragments of sheet music... but for that to happen, the big guys would have to admit that they don't absolutely control every last little bit of every byte in existance, and in the meantime you can make money selling "sample rights" to the timid &/or the ignorant with too much money on their hands.)

  • by Anonymous Coward
    (Just to save the rest of you some time)

    So, when's the IPO?

    Mmmmmm.... Beowulf.

    I haven't read the article yet, but here's my opinion on gun control ...[4890 words elided]...

    Gang, let's get the SEC involved. There's strength in numbers.

  • Another AI company gone bankrupt. Shutdown by M$ too. At least firefly did something useful with agent technology. It wasn't all smoke and mirrors.

    first post?
  • Wired News - 13 August 2001

    In a move that will not be noticed by, and that is unlikely to cause a stir among the placated office workers who used to be geeks of the late 90s, Microsoft closed community site today in preparation for the opening of its new side

    Microsoft took over the Linux community site (which pioneered the weblog styled news site) in 2000, after winning a court case against the Free Software Foundation regarding its proprietary Linux distribution (Winux NT) and GNU Public License.

    The former owners of were not available for comments, and have not been spotted publicly since attending a Mircrosoft re-education program at Redmond campus shortly after the takeover.
  • I implemented Firefly's technology for a customer of theirs a couple years ago. It was pretty interesting stuff.

    Firefly had a great company culture - games, dogs, and a bunch of bright people doing cool things.

    I remember hearing about it when Microsoft first noticed them. A project manager at FF told me that they weren't worried about being absorbed, because Microsoft's market studies said that people were wary of Microsoft having personal data on them. I guess he was wrong.

  • Cool, now with your "online passport" you never have to give your credit card details to those slimy pr0n merchants. Thanks Bill!

  • Are we ever going to get an explanation for the disappearance Wed. evening (U.S. east coast time) of the "Red Hat IPO Update" story from the main page?
    Before you waste a moderation point on this, use one to moderate up the haircut price post.

  • Hehe.. it took him two postings to type 'FIRST!'.
  • I -like- the idea of a passport service to save me lots of dumb-ass repetative typing. But this is a function for a non-profit org . There is no bloody way I will give that info to MS or it's ilk. They simply cannot be trusted for the full term, whatever promises they will make today.
  • by pen ( 7191 )
    "... so rather than compete with you, I've decided to simply buy you out."

    "I didn't get rich by writing a lot of checks! Mwuahahahaha!"

    -Bill Gates (The Simpsons)

  • I don't particularly like business, I really don't like marketing and I really really don't like crap like trade shows, or having to get sales reps together, or any of that.

    If you're "about to have a serious look at RH6 & Metroworks" you should be warned that the "trade show types" are crawling all over it right now.
  • I was most disturbed by this little piece in the Wired article:

    When Microsoft shuts down next week, it will mean the end of one of the Net's oldest and most historically significant communities.

    The article then goes on to mention that Firefly started in 1996. This makes it one of the "oldest and most historically significant"?!

    Must've been a newbie reporter trying to put things into perspective. One of the oldest? Don't even get me started -- on laUNChpad, nyx and the Well and echo and the ISCABBS and Quartz Paradise, even. Some are still around and struggling; others are long gone. Hell, even Wired's own little computer-klatsch commune is older than Firefly. And historically significant? Um. Other than the fact that Firefly seemed to be the first recommendation agent that made it "big".

    Remember when personalized agents were gonna be the Next Really Big Thing? We'd turn our computer on in the morning and our agents, usually in the form of a cute cartoon dog or something, would report back to us that our plane tickets had been reserved, the cab to the airport booked, and here is the weather in Albuquerque today.

    Agents might not be so personal now, granted, but they do work in their mysterious ways. tracks my orders for me via email. I get weekly listings of "cyberfares" custom-picked for destinations I frequent, and I've tried eBay once or twice. Perhaps we owe a bit of credit to Firefly for taking us down the personalized info route, but I'm not going to laud it as one of the defining concepts behind the Internet As We Know It Today.

    Personalized recommendation services are a strange breed, anyhow. I echo the sentiments of several folks who've already mentioned that it took Firefly entirely too long to return the simple message that I should be interested in bands I already liked. amazon's recommendation service is entirely way too obvious or inexplicably false and motivated by items Amazon wants to push. How else can I explain their insistence that, among recommendations for Mel Brooks movies and Terry Pratchett novels and MST3K episodes and Beautiful South albums (the kinds of which I've purchased from Amazon in the past) that I'd "really like" the Tony Blanks Tae-Bo tape?! (Maybe it's a subtle hint from Amazon considering I've bought lots of videos from them?)

    I see I'm losing track of the main point here. It sure is sad to see a 3-year-old Internet company go (especially when, yes, it has been around longer than many) but we can't let the fact that their sad decline and their entrails being feasted upon by Shub-Microsoft make us believe Firefly was something greater than it was.

    If anything, Firefly and SixDegrees (which debuted at roughly the same time, IIRC) seemed nothing more to me than an attempt to get personal marketing information out of me in exchange for something they promised was "really really cool", yet never seemed to be. It shall be missed, but not in a sniffly "It was soooooo visionary" mindset. Not from me, at least. Sorry.

  • by BJH ( 11355 )
    I like the MS mouthpiece's quote - "Change is always difficult". I'm gonna send that off to Big Bill G when Linux puts the smack down on NT's ass...mmm yeah.

  • And I quote:

    "The reality of the software business today is that if you find something that can make you ridiculously rich, then that's something Microsoft is going to want to take from you"

    The facts run as thus: I love making great bits of technology. Some people love plugging them together and think that's the same thing, but it's not. I love making things. I don't particularly like business, I really don't like marketing and I really really don't like crap like trade shows, or having to get sales reps together, or any of that.

    So, if I make something worthwhile, "Tasty" for want of a better word, get it up and going in a basic form and make sure Microsoft know about it, are they going to arrive with an extra long cheque book (to take all those zeroes) and put their almightily big marketing department on to it because they have to make it sell.

    Or have firefly just proven that Microsoft are happy to buy something purely to stop anyone else from having it?


    BTW, offtopic - I'm an NT developer about to have a serious look at RH6 & Metroworks. I think you're winning.


  • by Anonymous Coward
    the truth be told, Firefly sucked. No, it sucked ass. Firefly was one of the old 'ask each user a whole big pile of stupid questions and then data-mine the resultant database formed of all those users'. The questions are stupid probably b/c their vagueness, the thing that makes them relevant to a human thinking in terms of open-ended future sales, makes it _really_ hard to analyze. Amazon does not ask you a bunch of questions -- it just keeps track of _all_ of your purchases, and groups them accordingly. Add that data to the pre-existing subject/topic fields in the database, and lo and behold, it works. Not very tricky tech, but a bit more thinking than the firefly system. Moreover, it's thinking about the user, rather than thinking of the user as, for example, a data entry device. Intelligent tech is transparent. Firefly was maddenly opaque. ergo, it sucked. and the matching system was really poor, too. good day.
  • Actually, I have to agree with you from a tech standpoint. I tried it. I was unimpressed. I never went back.

    However the article mentions that it was a popular community with over 400 people "on the fly" [give me a break] at one time. Building an online community isn't easy...and for every Firefly/Slashdot/Well that exists, there are hundreds, or even thousands that fail. So they must have done something right.

  • "My housemates and I decided to have a hacking party. We do this every month or so. Since we have a network of PCs running Unix at home, it is easy to get lots of people programming together. We couldn't decide what to build so I said `Well, we all like science fiction novels. So let's build a system where we type in the names of the books that we like and a rating. Then the system can grind over the database and figure out what books to suggest.'"


    "It took us the whole afternoon, but we got it to the point where it would notice that I liked Books A, B, and C but hadn't read Book D, which other people who liked A, B, and C had liked. So that was suggested for me. We also got it to notice if you and I had opposite tastes and suppress your recommendations."

    This was back in 1994. Anne and her friends had, in one afternoon, completed virtually the entire annual research agenda of at least two MIT professors (neither in my department, I'm relieved to note).

    by Philip Greenspun, Chapter 9 of Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing []

    (... And if you all had any sense you quit reading this slashdot crap until you'd finished reading this book. It's all available on-line, but it's definitely worth buying a hardcopy of it.)

    Anyway, as for Firefly... everyone I know thought it was ridiculous. They played with it in the same way people play with bablefish [], just to laugh at how stupid the results were. Microsoft bought it? Cool... I hope they buy lots of other useless companies. They shut it down? Too bad, it would be better if they wasted more money on it. Maybe passport will help burn some of their cash.


    In a transaction of undisclosed amount, Microsoft Corporation (MSFT)has bought the U.S. Department of Justice.

    Microsoft officials promised that the deal would be transparent to U.S. citizens, and that it was not part of a total world-domination scheme.

    In other news, Microsoft Corporation (MSFT)bought the country of Mexico for a sum of 900 US B$ and stock options. Immediately after the signing of the contracts, Mexico was renamed to Microsofto, and citizen became Microsoftan. Microsoft has been on a streak of land-acquisition, buying Australia, New Zealand, South-Africa, Russia and Mexico.

    Government officials are starting to worry that Microsoft Corporation may be up to something.

    More news at 6.

    Sun Tzu must have been running Linux...
    - Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. (Sun Tzu, The art of war)

  • Does anyone else get the impression that Microsoft has learnt something from the DoJ case? Namely, that driving their competitors out of business by using underhand tactics isn't such a good idea, and that it's easier (and probably cheaper, in the long run), to buy them.

    STNC [] is a perfect example. This is a British company which is psrt of the Symbian Consortium [] which, of course, is supporting EPOC []. STNC supplies browser technology to Symbian.

    However, Microsoft has bought STNC [], and it's not yet clear how long they'll continue supplying Symbian.

    I'm trying to raise the subject with the Office of Fair Trading [], here in the UK, in an attempt to get it referred to the Competition Commission [], but I'm afraid it's too late.

    And it's not just software companies. Microsoft's investments in cable TV companies and the like are part of a strategy to force more widespread adoption of Microsoft software, thus extending their monopoly beyond the desktop.

    I think that Microsoft should be broken up into a number of seperate companies, including some sort of investment fund, to cover it's investments in other companies. Otherwise, it's in danger of becoming unstoppable.

    D. for Dangerous.

  • A friend turned me on to Firefly in early '96. I never got much out of the music recommendation stuff, but there was a thriving 'n happening chat scene going on there. The only one I've ever really spent any time on at all before or since. However about mid 96 the Passport came along and with it a whole new Firefly interface that was a big step down in functionality and ease of use. It pretty much put the kabosh on the fun, and people left in droves. You know how often you only have a limited time from the time you find something good till it gets fucked up? Case in point. The Passport itself? Cheap marketing gimmick. I'm sure its evil potential is what's attracted Micros~1.
  • Unfortunately, the subject line might just might be a grim fate. Our government seems to be concentrating on the small things and ignoring the blatantly obvious.

    This is just the first step into dominating an entirely new market. Banks have known for some time that MS has been maneuvering to put itself into the position of controlling (or should I say facillitating?) all online transactions. There _will_ be a huge profit in this eventually. If they become entrenched enough, they'll make sure there are two protocols for online transactions. Theirs and an "unsafe" one (this won't be true, but it'll be what they are telling your bosses.) At some point we will become dependant on them for everything from TV's to toasters.

    It's only when we combine them collecting personal information and unique hardware ID's that we can truly be scared.
  • The "Microsoft Closing Firefly" article completely discounts the pre-Passport Firefly, the one I fondly remember.
  • Okay, then they won't shut it down, but they'll take about 4 months in releasing a new article, while inviting lots of people to read the new article, but disqualifying them one by one until only a select group of people read the article, most of whom have no idea what the article stands for / means.

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.