- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO | You might call it “Son of the Netflix Prize.”

The DVD rental company has not yet announced a winner for its first $1 million challenge to improve its system of recommending movies that subscribers may enjoy, but it is already indicating there will be a sequel.

In a post on the Web forum set up for the current Netflix prize, Netflix Inc.’s chief product officer, Neil Hunt, said Netflix will announce specific details of a second contest in late September, when it divulges the winner of the first one.

The original contest was launched in 2006 to improve predictions on Netflix’s site by at least 10 percent. The idea was to farm out valuable research to thousands of participants. More than 51,000 people in 186 countries took part.

Two teams — one called BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, the other called the Ensemble — are now vying for the prize. The BellKor team submitted its solution first in late June, kicking off a 30-day period in which other contestants were able to enter their best work and try to beat the group’s effort. The Ensemble submitted its solution in late July.

According to Netflix’s online prize leaderboard, the Ensemble had improved predictions for what movies people will enjoy by 10.10 percent while BellKor had improved predictions by 10.09 percent. It is not clear yet which team will be declared the winner, though.

Mr. Hunt said Round Two will be a “big money contest with some new twists.”

He did not specify how much money will be involved.

“While the first contest has been remarkable, we think Netflix Prize 2 will be more challenging, more fun, and even more useful to the field,” he wrote.

Microsofties’ side project seeks new Office ideas

SEATTLE | Have a gripe about Office? A couple of guys at Microsoft Corp. want to hear it directly. “Make Office Better” is an unofficial project in which individuals submit ideas and weigh in on whether they like the ideas submitted by others. Topics that resonate most with the crowd should get the most “me, too” votes and rise to the top.

It’s similar to the approach taken by the news aggregator site digg.com and the IdeaStorm product-suggestion site run by PC maker Dell Inc.

After a few weeks online, Make Office Better has racked up about 750 ideas, but only about 150 of them got 10 votes or more.

One particularly passionate user made at least eight separate submissions to “Ditch the Ribbon,” referring to the new user interface introduced with Office 2007.

The leading suggestion, to change the way the Outlook e-mail program handles Web-page-style e-mails, was posted by one of the project’s founders, Steve Zaske.

Many of the ideas are highly technical. Some reveal nostalgia for features in WordPerfect, which was overtaken as the top word processing program by Microsoft Office years ago. Others argue for more compatibility with OpenOffice, a free set of competing programs.

And some are just way out there, like one request to turn Microsoft Word into a way to self-publish and sell electronic books, with Microsoft taking a cut.

At least the Microsoft site has a sense of humor. In a graphic at the top of the home page, it puts “Clippy,” the much-maligned, animated paper clip that offered Word and Excel tips until Office 2007’s launch, somewhere on the evolutionary timeline between apes and cave men.

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