Steven Levy

Stories by Steven Levy

  • Technology: Big And Small

    For gadget lovers and MAC fans, Christmas comes in January, when Apple Computer and the rest of the world's electronics manufacturers hold separate trade shows.Macworld ...
  • I-Innovation

    The keynote was preceded by a sour note: the night before Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the stage to address the annual San Francisco Macworld show, a Merrill Lynch analyst issued a dire "sell" rating for the company's stock, charging that "the new product pipeline looks skimpy and we expect continued market share losses." ...
  • Forcing Open Windows

    Can anyone compete with Microsoft in the world of software applications? For years now, Bill Gates & Co. have had clear sailing: the Windows operating-system monopoly has helped make their key products--like Word and Outlook--into unbeatable juggernauts. Meanwhile, innovation in those areas proceeds only at the pace that Microsoft deems appropriate.The Open Source Applications Foundation has a different idea: to promote free software and innovation by creating cool new applications on a bare-bones budget. The not-for-profit OSAF was initially funded with $5 million from former Lotus Development Corp. founder Mitch Kapor. For Kapor, this is a fascinating departure. Twenty years ago he introduced one of the first killer apps of the PC age, the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet; it was unabashedly for-profit and was closed-source, a la Microsoft.But Kapor always had his heart in the counterculture, and after leaving his company he cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyberrights...
  • The World According To Google

    In a bygone era--say, five years ago--it would have been an occasion to burn shoe leather. A friend clued me in to an eBay item connected with a criminal case I was following. I didn't know who the seller was, and the district attorney on the case didn't know, either. "We're looking into it," he assured me. I checked into it as well. Fifteen minutes later, I had not only the seller's name, I'd discovered that he was a real-estate agent in a small California town. I'd seen a picture of him. I knew which community groups he belonged to, the title of a book he'd written. And what college he had attended. And I found out that the seller had a keen interest in hooking up with younger men--and I'd even read graphic descriptions of what he liked to do with them.How did I know this? By performing an act done by tens of millions of people every day: typing a query (my quarry's eBay handle, which was the same as his e-mail address) into a blank line on a sparsely decorated Web page. In about...
  • Global Search

    Sure, you love your Google. But what if the object of your quest is to get a broad view of the subject? With traditional search engines, you might have to scroll through many pages of results. But now there's Grokker, a visually oriented search tool that delivers results in a colorful landscape of nested spheres. Each ball represents one aspect of your requested item, and you can enlarge the spheres to find subcategories, repeating the process until you get to the actual sites or files.A preview release of Grokker, which searches databases from Northern Lights and Amazon--with many more to come--is downloadable for $100 (which includes an upgrade to the final version) at www.groxis.com.
  • Another Go At The Tablet Pc

    Experience the evolution. That's the weirdly appropriate slogan for Microsoft's highly touted tonic for the troubled computer industry, the Tablet PC. During its high-profile launch last Thursday, Bill Gates acknowledged that the laptop-you-can-write-on was only the latest (and presumably, greatest) of many failed pen-based computing iterations. In an act of bravery, he even enumerated a few of those unfit nonsurvivors, including Apple's Newton and the product from the doomed start-up company Go. I cite his courage because those reminders inevitably led observers to speculate whether the Tablet--embodied in no fewer than eight versions by different hardware companies, with more to come--might itself find its way into a diorama in a digital Museum of Natural History.Fortunately for Microsoft, the evolutionary landscape for pen-based computers is much friendlier than in years previous. The Tablet PC cleverly exploits today's mightier chips, smarter digitizers, sharper screens, cannier...
  • Take My Bills, Please!

    There was a telling moment in the recent agenda conference, a prominent gathering of high-tech execs not bankrupt or in handcuffs. Moderator James Fallows, whose day job consists partially of writing big-think articles for The Atlantic Monthly, was interviewing Rob Glaser, the CEO of Real Networks. Glaser's company boasts one of the biggest subscription enrollments on the Web: he'd come to Phoenix, Ariz. (these things are often held at balmy desert resorts ringed by golf co), to boast of 850,000 paying--that's right, paying--consumers of the entertainment and sports programming he sells. Fallows noted that despite selling subscriptions for more than 100 years, his magazine's financial state is perpetually precarious. And, Glaser asked, "does Atlantic get $120 a year for subscriptions?"Glaser's point was clear: these days a business person's heaven is a few hundred thousand--or, better yet, a few million--customers sending you fat monthly contributions. Especially when you're selling...
  • Cheat Sheet | Dressed To The Eights

    This month America Online (AOL) and Microsoft Network (MSN) unveil what they call breakthrough software updates, both numbered Version 8. It seems AOL (35 million members, $24 a month) has finally wised up about MSN (9 million, $22 a month).AOL 8.0LOOK AND FEEL: Shedding its Pravda attitude toward personalization, it now offers six Welcome screens. Still too many ads and offers.PARENTAL CONTROLS: Industry leader makes its kid-limiting system easier to find. Will include usage "report cards" to parents in December.E-MAIL: Good news: AOL mail isn't quite as lame as before, finally instituting features others had in 1995. Bad news: still lame.MESSAGING: More ways to dress it up but not as snazzy as Apple's iChat version. Still, AIM is mandatory since everyone uses it.MSN 8LOOK AND FEEL: Well-organized, with lots of chances to customize. But some people will want to lose space-gobbling "dashboard."PARENTAL CONTROLS: More sweeping means of blocking inappropriate material, and provides...
  • And Justice For All

    Twenty-five years and 37 days after Ira Einhorn crushed Holly Maddux's skull and stuffed her in a trunk, the former hippie boulevardier, with his hair shorn now and decked in a clubby blue blazer, sat next to his lawyer to hear his fate. The suspense wasn't exactly overwhelming. As his lawyer, William Cannon, later explained, it's tough to defend a client when his former girlfriend is discovered in mummified form in his closet 18 months after her disappearance. That job is tougher still when the jury learns that your client almost murdered two other women under similar circumstances--they wanted to leave him, he didn't want them to leave unharmed.And when excerpts from your client's personal diary actually celebrate such assaults ("Violence always marks the end of a relationship...." ), well, you do the best you can.Nonetheless on Thursday, Oct. 17, Room 305, in the city court building across the street from Philadelphia's City Hall, was brimming with drama. Seated in the front row...
  • Glitterati Vs. Geeks

    Larry Lessig admits it: he's nervous. Who wouldn't be? This week the brainy Stanford law professor makes his first appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court--barely a decade after clerking for Justice Antonin Scalia--to argue a case that could redirect millions of dollars, rejigger the entertainment menu of the entire nation and liberate Mickey Mouse.In its narrowest context, Eldred v. Ashcroft deals with the seemingly arcane issue of the length of copyrights for books, films and music. But it's actually a high-noon showdown between two great industries at odds in the age of the Internet. In one corner there are the big studios and record labels, intent on protecting their property and their turf; their success in winning congressional goodies has been more reliable than a Hollywood happy ending. In the other stand the forces of high-tech innovation, who until recently wore their distrust of government like a badge of pride. Now the techie crowd understands that if Big Media gets the...
  • I Was A Wi-Fi Freeloader

    The other day, I plopped down on my living-room couch to do some work on my laptop while watching a football game. The family cable modem, which pumps high-speed Internet into our abode, was at the other end of the apartment, hardwired to a computer on a desk in the bedroom. So I had no access to e-mail or the Web. Or did I?I have a program on my PowerBook called MacStumbler, whichtells me whether I'm within the signal area of any localized "wi-fi" networks. Wi-fi is a means of beaming an Internet connection wirelessly.Though the range is relatively small--commonly a few hundred feet--people have set up thousands of wi-fi nodes at home, within corporations or in public spaces such as a Starbucks. To my surprise, I discovered that my laptop was picking up two of these signals. Clearly, a couple of my neighbors--I couldn't tell whether they were fellow tenants or nearby businesses--were inadvertently bleeding wi-fi into my apartment. Neither signal utilized encryption or even password...
  • Time For An Instant Fix

    God knows that America Online has enough problems. There's that funny accounting business, its inability to meet ad quotas and all the untidy blame-mongering that follows the purchase of an elite media goliath by an overvalued Internet company. (I'm sure that everyone in the online service's Vienna, Va., headquarters felt great when CEO Dick Parsons began a sentence with the phrase "If AOL is going to live...") Given all those travails, does a broken promise about instant messaging mean a hill of beans? Apparently, the AOL brain trust doesn't think so. But I do.The unkept vow involves the company's stated intent to make its wildly popular AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software work with other instant-messaging programs. AOL has about 150 million registered users of its program. The company boasts more than 2 billion instant messages (IMs) sent daily. Yet AOL users can't zip off their how-de-dos to those using Microsoft's MSN Messenger or Yahoo Messenger, or even ICQ, AOL's less...
  • The Trial Of A Radical, Finally

    This week, lawyers picked a jury in Philadelphia for the Ira Einhorn murder trial, with opening arguments to begin on Monday. It's an understatement to say that this is an event long overdue.Twenty five years ago this month--Jimmy Carter was president and the first Star Wars movie had just been released--Helen "Holly" Maddux, then a vivacious 30-year-old, was called to the apartment she once shared with Ira Einhorn, her longtime boyfriend of several years. That summer, she had terminated the relationship, and a frantic Einhorn was demanding she return to his second-floor flat near the University of Pennsylvania. Otherwise, he threatened, he would toss her clothes on the street. Holly went back to the apartment. She was never seen alive again. In March 1979, her remains were found in the apartment, in a steamer trunk stored in Einhorn's closet. "You found what you found," Einhorn told the cops who located the body. A more unambiguous set of circumstances could not be imagined.But...
  • Software: The Eminence Geek

    The people most identified with the software giant Microsoft are, of course, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. The third is up for grabs, but to hard-core nerds it may well be Charles Simonyi, the 54-year-old Hungarian-born computer scientist who joined a small, scruffy firm in 1981 and helped it to become Microsoft. He was the guru behind Word, and later became a sort of eminence geek in Microsoft's research division. He also became fantastically rich, building a house that rivals Chairman Bill's, and jet-setting around with pals like Martha Stewart. But this week an era in Redmond, Wash., ends: Simonyi is off on his own.The mission of his new company, Intentional Software, is "making [computer] code look like design," he says. The idea is to create tools that will allow programmers to make their intent visible to others. "What you get when you look at a computer program now could be produced by the teletype machine," says Simonyi, who himself began hacking in high school, on a Russian...
  • Living In The Blog-Osphere

    Zack was an insecure kid who clowned around in high school and felt that no one really liked him. About a year ago he started a Weblog, or blog--an easy-to-maintain journal-like personal Web site where he could express his feelings and share his songs, poems and artwork with his classmates. "I thought that people would like me if they truly knew me," explains Zack, now 18. As the journal became well known in the school, Zack saw the change he hoped for: "My friends found me."Zack, with his 28 readers a day, isn't part of Weblogging's "A list," an intricate mutual back-scratch society that includes clever curmudgeons, high-tech avatars and angry ankle-biters who ferociously snipe at traditional media. He is, however, a truer representative of the blogging boom that's making people into instant publishers, newshounds and public diarists--and helping the Internet make good on some of its heady promises of personal empowerment.Indeed, with a new blogger joining the crowd every 40...
  • Can 8.0 Save The Chat Room?

    Even if he hadn't been just appointed the new CEO of America Online, Jonathan Miller would have made a nice poster boy for the online service. He certainly has the technical savvy to handle the wilds of the Internet without training wheels--after all, he headed USA Networks' valuable online properties--but for six years Miller, 45, has also been a happy member of the 34 million-strong so-called AOL community. "Every morning my 8-year-old son plays chess against someone somewhere in the world," he says, launching into an ode to AOL's chess service, which he considers superior to the allegedly whizzier ones to be found on the Internet at large. Cue some sappy music and... you've got commercial.Actually, the background sounds are more like ominous synthesizer growls in a horror flick. Miller, who is universally cited as a smart, low-key manager, had better bulk up for battle. He joins AOL when the skies above its Dulles, Va., headquarters are dark with circling vultures (related story)...
  • Internet: A 'Real' Innovation

    In one of the Internet's most hotly contested battlegrounds, a top competitor has plans to enlist the Geek Legion to its aid. Real Networks is a leader in streaming media--the technology by which music and video flows into your computer--but the company constantly has to keep on its toes to stave off the relentless challenge from Microsoft, which created its own Windows Media standard. This week Real will release Helix, the ninth generation of its software for servers that deliver the media to consumers. Helix can handle every media format--including Windows Media. But more intriguing is Real's decision to publish Helix's source code so that outside developers can make their own improvements, either building them into compatible products or submitting innovations for inclusion in the next release. In theory, users will reap new features, better performance and smoother integration with other software. It's a great test of the claims of open-source gurus, who say that a self...
  • Armani, Andy And Apple

    Steve Jobs and New York's SoHo district are a natural fit. Both are icons in the nexus where taste, art and commerce all meet. Like SoHo, Apple CEO Jobs has evolved from scruffy beginnings to prosperity while maintaining a quietly hip edge.So it's no wonder that when Apple opened its first store in New York City, Jobs chose the place where Giorgio Armani and the Keith Haring shopcoexist. At its unveiling last Wednesday, Jobs was greeting media and muck-a-mucks at his 32d Apple retail store, a former Restoration Hardware outlet in a 100-year-old former post office. "I love the neighborhood," Jobs gushes.Jobs is celebrating five years since his triumphant return to the company. He's still triumphant and, surprising even himself, he's still there. And he's still foiling skeptics by insisting--and, so far, proving--that Apple is a survivor. Earlier in the day, dressed in trademark long-sleeved black T and jeans, he wove his spell before thousands of the faithful who attended the...
  • Labels To Net Radio: Die Now

    Jim Atkinson is cannon fodder in the digital-music wars. Five years ago he and his wife, Wanda, began 3WK, a virtual radio station that streams tunes of their beloved alt/indie rock to listeners over the Internet. Unlike broadcast radio, which requires astronomical investments in licenses and broadcast equipment, a Webcaster needs only software and a server. The result is arich universe of more than 10,000 alternative Web stations, many of which cater to narrow if not bizarre tastes: from Hawaiian ukulele music to Tanzanian drumming. It's the exact opposite of broadcast radio, where the vast majority of stations are owned by a few media giants, who restrict playlists to the lowest-common-denominator ears. In the Webcast world, however, it's possible for Jim and Wanda Atkinson to run one of the more popular sites--and one day, they hope, a profitable ad-supported business--by playing the tunes of, say, Dashboard Confessional. Possible, that is, until Oct. 20.That's the day the bill...
  • The Big Secret

    In ancient Troy stood the Palladium, a statue of the goddess Athena. Legend has it that the safety of the city depended on that icon's preservation. Later the term came to mean a more generic safeguard.Here's something that cries for a safeguard: the world of computer bits. An endless roster of security holes allows cyber-thieves to fill up their buffers with credit-card numbers and corporate secrets. It's easier to vandalize a Web site than to program a remote control. Entertainment moguls boil in their hot tubs as movies and music are swapped, gratis, on the Internet. Consumers fret about the loss of privacy. And computer viruses proliferate and mutate faster than they can be named.Computer security is enough of a worry that the software colossus Microsoft views it as a threat to its continued success: thus the apocalyptic Bill Gates memo in January calling for a "Trustworthy Computing" jihad. What Gates did not specifically mention was Microsoft's hyperambitious long-range plan...
  • Pc Prescription: Tablet

    For more than a year now, Bill Gates has appeared at computer shows, captain-of-industry hoedowns and, for all we know, weddings and bar mitzvahs, waving what looks like a bulked-up Etch A Sketch, and saying that the tablet will smite the laptop.What's a tablet? It's Microsoft's ambitious effort to remake the PC landscape by kick-starting a cate-gory that's been in the minds and business plans of visionaries for decades but has never caught on with the public. The new Tablet PC is a pen-based computer that uses special software cooked up by the brainiacs in Redmond. (The actual machines will be built and marketed by the usual suspects in the PC business.) Due to arrive in October at prices between $2,000 and $3,000, the Tablet PC is meant not to supplement your current laptop, but supplant it. You'll ramble down the hall with your tab, take it to your meetings and use it to take notes, surf the Web and maybe even doodle--all while maintaining eye contact with others in the room. ...
  • Pc Prescription: Tablet

    For more than a year now, Bill Gates has appeared at computer shows, captain-of-industry hoedowns and, for all we know, weddings and bar mitzvahs, waving what looks like a bulked-up Etch A Sketch, and saying that the tablet will smite the laptop.What's a tablet? It's Microsoft's ambitious effort to remake the PC landscape by kick-starting a category that's been in the minds and business plans of visionaries for decades, but has never caught on with the public. The new Tablet PC is a pen-based computer that uses special software cooked up by the brainiacs in Redmond. (The actual machines will be built and marketed by the usual suspects in the PC business.) Due to arrive in October at prices between $2,000 and $3,000, the Tablet PC is meant not to supplement your current laptop, but supplant it. You'll ramble down the hall with your tab, take it to your meetings and use it to take notes, surf the Web and maybe even doodle--all while maintaining eye contact with others in the room. ...
  • Great Minds, Great Ideas

    If the respective experiences of Stephen Wolfram and Dean Kamen are any indication, hell on earth for a brilliant innovator is spelled s-c-h-o-o-l.British-born Wolfram, now 42, son of a novelist and a philosophy professor, was miserable at Eton, the boy's hoary boarding school outside London. He figured out the locations on the fabled playing fields where a soccer ball was least likely to find him, ignored his instructor's attempts to "try to teach us how to eat peas" and was astonished at how little they added to the scientific knowledge he'd gathered on his own. Kamen, 51, whose dad was an artist for Mad magazine, found himself at odds with his public-school teachers in New York's Long Island because he noted that his wrong answers weren't really wrong. For instance, when asked to select the word that didn't belong to the set "add, subtract, multiply, increase," Kamen might choose "add" because all the others had seven letters.In their defense, the respective educational systems...
  • Will The Blogs Kill Old Media?

    A year ago, Glenn Reynolds hardly qualified as plankton on the punditry food chain. The 41-year-old law professor at the University of Tennessee would pen the occasional op-ed for the L.A. Times, but his name was unfamiliar to even the most fanatical news junkie. All that began to change on Aug. 5 of last year, when Reynolds acquired the software to create a "Weblog," or "blog." A blog is an easily updated Web site that works as an online daybook, consisting of links to interesting items on the Web, spur-of-the-moment observations and real-time reports on whatever captures the blogger's attention. Reynolds's original goal was to post witty observations on news events, but after September 11, he began providing links to fascinating articles and accounts of the crisis, and soon his site, called InstaPundit, drew thousands of readers--and kept growing. He now gets more than 70,000 page views a day (he figures this means 23,000 real people). Working at his two-year-old $400 computer, he...
  • Turning Off The Music Tap

    Has the Internet bred a generation of music pirates? That's the implicit assumption of the record labels, which insist that their survival depends on imposing lockouts on both hardware and software that would limit your ability to copy music. In the past few weeks the question has left the realm of the theoretical, as Sen. Fritz Hollings has introduced the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Act, which would mandate anticopying technology on all digital devices--potentially wiping out the rights of consumers to legally copy music for personal uses (making "mix" CDs, duping a disk to leave in the car, even ripping tunes into a PC). Yes, it may be drastic, say copyright holders, but we've lost the battle of minds and ethics, and therefore require this necessary last resort in the fight against piracy.But are digital-music fans really so accustomed to freebies that there's no way short of legislation and crippled technology for labels and artists to get paid in the age of the...
  • Playing The Id Card

    When Hani Hanjour and Khalid Almihdhar pulled their van into a 7-Eleven parking lot last Aug. 1, they weren't looking for Slurpees. Apparently they knew that the Falls Church, Va., location was a hangout for day laborers, and the third one they approached, Luis Martinez-Flores, agreed to their terms: $100 cash in exchange for accompanying them to a nearby Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles office and vouching that they were residents of the state. The three men filled out the DL51 applications, with Flores swearing that they all lived at the same local address. This satisfied the requirements of a regulation introduced to help immigrants get a "nondriver's ID" without going through the normal procedure requiring concrete proof of residency. After the three swore to the veracity of their statements, a DMV worker issued Hanjour and Almihdhar official Virginia state identification cards on the spot--and a month later they flashed those valid IDs to airport personnel before boarding...
  • 'Back To The Frontier'

    One of the rituals in the high-tech industry is the late March pilgrimage to the Arizona desert (specifically, a resort in the outskirts of Scottsdale) for Esther Dyson's PC Forum. The conference, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has long been known as a platform for ideas and issues in the digital revolution, a staging ground for behind-the-scenes dealmaking, and above all, a world-class schmoozathon where the Silicon Valley A-list unwinds.Though Esther, whose position in the center of high-tech has been unchallenged since the Reagan administration, chooses a theme each year, often the true conceit of the event emerges spontaneously. Two years ago, in the height of bubblemania there was the Guilt Forum, where the subject of the conferees' Midas-like riches kept popping up. Last year, was the Bummer Forum, when suddenly there were fewer billionaires. This year, acknowledging the industry's need to get back in the saddle, Esther proclaimed this the "Back to the Frontier"...
  • Silicon Valley Reboots

    The Dot-Com Bust Was Bad For Wall Street, But It Was The Best Thing To Happen To This High-Tech Crucible
  • THE FILM OF TOMORROW

    Before describing what it's been like to create a company with traditional business values while Silicon Valley was going mad with greed, Foveon chairman and founder Carver Mead insists on giving a slide show showing something that really matters: ground-breaking technology. In the nondescript company headquarters--hidden in the midst of a typical Valley office park, with snooper-proof blackened-glass doors--there's a conference room, ringed with awesomely high-resolution photos, that's perfect for a show-and-tell.The slides depict the inner workings of Mead's baby: the X3, a chip design that promises to supercharge, and eventually revolutionize, digital photography. The current standard is the "mosaic" method, which takes multiple adjacent pixels to generate a single dot of color, requiring a round of computation to reconstruct the image. Mead hates it: "Information is lost!" he wails, pointing to unwelcome results like the muddy moire patterns on your digital photos. Foveon's...
  • LOCKING UP YOUR RIGHTS

    Alexander Katalov never asked to be a commuter between his native Russia and Silicon Valley. His software company was doing quite well, thank you, without a presence in California. But now he often finds himself in an apartment in San Mateo, taking Caltrain to the federal courthouse in San Jose, where his company is criminally charged with violating a law known to few Americans, let alone Russian businessmen. Like it or not, the 38-year-old Muscovite's fate is intertwined with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the latest bete noire of geeks and constitutional lawyers.Katalov is president of ElcomSoft, which he founded 12 years ago, inspired by the promise of Russia's dawning era of capitalism. By the late '90s the company was doing well, specializing in tools that helped owners of programs like Microsoft Office circumvent password protections to recover files. The products were popular with law-enforcement agencies, and in one case an ElcomSoft employee won a citation as...