Steven Levy

Stories by Steven Levy

  • 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...
  • THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS WRONG

    There was something decidedly Enronesque about the hearing last week before the Senate Commerce Committee. No potential illegalities, mind you. But you had Disney CEO Michael Eisner and News Corp. president Peter Chernin speaking on behalf of record labels and movies studios to lobby Congress for laws to prop up their beleaguered business model as they cope with the Internet. As with a certain Houston energy company's dealings with friendly government officials, one couldn't help but wonder where the little people stood in all of this. The answer came from Sen. Fritz Hollings, clearly a friend of content holders. "When Congress sits idly by in the face of these [file-sharing] activities, we essentially sanction the Internet as a haven for thievery," said the committee chairman, charging "over 10 million people" with stealing. That's where citizens stand--not as potential consumers, but as candidates for prison denim.This tracks with the mentality of the record labels and film...
  • With A Little Bit Of Luxo

    This year the sacrosanct rituals of the Steve Jobs keynote at the semiannual Macworld conference were slightly altered. Normally, Apple Computer assumes a corporate poker face about anything Jobs may or may not be unveiling during the speech, leaving it up to the faithful cadre of Mac geeks to freely speculate on what the charismatic cofounder has in hand. Will it be an incremental improvement on his unconventional line of computers, or something that totally reboots the existing high-tech universe, leaving the crowd stunned with the brilliance of Apple's engineers, designers and key strategist? ...
  • A Couch Potato's Digital Dream

    If you sold your company to Microsoft, how would you splurge? Steve Perlman dropped about a million bucks outfitting his Lake Tahoe, Calif., retreat with a self-designed digital home entertainment center, where TV, video, music (950 CDs!) and the Web are integrated, networked and easily controlled from any room. "It's awesome," he says. ...
  • Technology: Grappling With The New Politics Of So

    Is your software friend or foe? It's getting harder and harder to tell. You paid for it and figure it's working for you, helping you produce documents, keeping you connected and entertaining you. But software is frequently a double agent. It tries to sell you things or keeps you from using competitors' programs. It acts as a copyright cop. And sometimes, it spies on you, exposing your secrets to corporations, advertisers or the United States government. "It's a transparency problem that just gets worse," says Temple University law professor David Post. "Software defines the way we interact with the world, but we don't know what's going on behind the scenes."Such are the new politics of software, with more blind alleys and hidden agendas than a cold-war novel. At best, the political nature of computer systems is quite explicit, as in the case of free and transparent Open Source software, which derives glory not from the program, but from the egalitarian impulses behind it. Other...
  • What Was That About?

    The case was supposed to be two well-matched competitors--the United States government and Microsoft, Washington v. Washington--in the mightiest legal clash of the two centuries it straddled. Its outcome was going to determine the rules of the road in the digital age. But in a new era where the nation has bigger worries, the Department of Justice ended its epic struggle against Bill Gates & Co. with a proposed settlement that was more wrist slap than head butt. The clash of titans had ended not by thunder but a jargon-laden document that speaks of icons, software hooks, contract details and watchdogs. But basically it leaves Microsoft to go about its business of being the pre-eminent power in the world of software. Without even having to say it's sorry.The legal drama is not quite over--the 18 state attorneys general engaged in parallel litigation against Microsoft are still pondering whether to endorse the settlement--but when Assistant Attorney General Charles James signed the...
  • Mac Music

    Steve Jobs is breathless, as if he's just run a marathon. In fact, he's making this phone call only minutes after a different form of exertion--one of his patented launch events. This time the high-tech tour de force is not a computer but a small white box that can play 66 hours of digitally stored music at near-CD quality. It's a "landmark," he croons. But the iPod, introduced last week and on sale Nov. 10, has two limitations on its potential popularity: a $399 price tag and a market of only the 7.5 million people who own Macs with high-speed FireWire ports.The latter limitation is intentional. "Our strategy is making Macintosh a digital hub, to make the way we do movies and image viewing and music to a point where you can't live without them," says Jobs. He'd been happy with Apple's iTunes music-management software, but not with the portable devices that played the songs. So earlier this year his people began designing the iPod specifically to work with Mac-based iTunes. (He is...
  • Random Access: The End Of Snail Mail?

    We've all heard about the media food chain, where a controversial story first appears in the tabloids and then finds its way into the establishment organs. But no one thought that the same would apply to anthrax attacks. As I was ingesting the information the about the cutaneous rash afflicting Tom Brokow's assistant and workers in white biohazrd suits testing the New York Times newsroom, my office door opened. It was the upbeat fellow whose duties include distributing the mail. "Hi, Steven!," he chirped, then dropped a packet of envelopes, packages, and magazines on my desk, neatly bound with a rubber band. Uh, thanks. Minutes later, a directive went around to all of us at NEWSWEEK: this was the last delivery we'd get for a while.And you know what? Losing mail delivery in 2001 is nowhere near the problem it would have been just a few years ago. Electronic communications, particularly e-mail, fax and the Web, have already supplanted the postal service--commonly known in the high...
  • Technology: A High-Tech Home Front

    At the airports, the much-maligned minimum-wage screeners confiscated nail clippers and corkscrews while cops and soldiers patrolled the corridors. Lines formed at the borders, traffic slowed on the highways, and bridges and tunnel approaches were jammed as agents searched trucks for possible explosives. Even sporting events were transformed. At the Boston College-Naval Academy football game the 12 metal detectors acted as bottlenecks: despite requests to appear two hours before game time, only a third of the 30,064 fans were seated by kickoff. And a tradition of smuggling in noisemakers ended at Mississippi State University when Davis Wade Stadium was declared a strict no-cowbell zone.Thus began the epic attempt to establish a homeland defense.Mostly people reacted to delays and inconveniences with patience, or even gratitude. But how long before the grumbling begins--or people stay home to avoid the hassles? That is only one of the many challenges for new homeland security czar...
  • Random Access Online: An Elephant In The Courtroom

    For obvious reasons, the ongoing battle between Microsoft and government trustbusters seems less central to our existence than it did before Sept. 11.Nonetheless, the case continues to inch forward. Last week, the parties were supposed to submit a joint plan to determine exactly how glacial the remaining pace would be in disposing of the District Court's last remaining task: determining which conduct remedies should be imposed on Microsoft for its lawbreaking ways.True to form, they were unable to agree. The Department of Justice and the 18 state attorneys general joining it want to go to trial by February and be done sometime in the spring. Microsoft proposed to stretch the case out-perhaps even until 2003-claiming (rather dubiously) that a separate phase of the case should launched to determine whether the government's punishment would be bad or really bad. In either case, Microsoft made it clear that it believes the proper remedy should be no more than a slap on its monopolistic...
  • Tech's Double-Edged Sword

    From American Flight 77, en route to death and the Pentagon, lawyer Barbara Olson cell-phoned her husband, the U.S. solicitor general, and told him of the hijacking. On United Flight 93, both Jeremy Glick and Thomas Burnett Jr. called their wives and confided their (apparently successful) intentions to counterattack the hijackers. Others on the stolen planes, as well as dozens trapped in the World Trade Center towers, pulled out their cells to speak one more time to a wife or parent and say "I love you." The recipients of those calls, while justifiably inconsolable, are undoubtedly grateful for the final opportunity to hear those voices. But before we celebrate another irreplaceable use of wireless communications, consider this: according to government officials, within hours of the explosions, mobile phones of suspected terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden were buzzing with congratulations for the murderous acts. They use them, too.The contrast dramatizes a long-recognized truism:...
  • Look Ma, No Breaks

    The call came on Thursday morning, from one very different Washington to another. Hey guys, said the D.C. bureaucrats who had spent an eternity in Internet Time tormenting the code crunchers in Redmond, Wash., you know that plan we had to split your anticompetitive, monopolistic company in two? Fuggedaboutit! Minutes later the Department of Justice issued a press release confirming that it "will not seek a breakup." Furthermore, the government was dropping the last unresolved count in the case--the one that dealt with whether Microsoft illegally "tied" its browser to the operating system.You would think that this news would be cause for celebration on the ever-sprawling Microsoft campus. But no one broke out the noisemakers. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer had always regarded a breakup as so hideous an outcome that it was beyond contemplation. And in June, when the court of appeals reversed Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's Big Bang, the Softies concluded that the breakup was finally a...
  • Did Encryption Empower These Terrorists?

    "Well, I guess this is the end now...." So wrote the first Netizen to address today's tragedy on the popular discussion group, sci.crypt. The posting was referring what seems like an inevitable reaction to the horrific terrorist act: an attempt to roll back recent relaxations on encryption tools, on the theory that cryptography helped cloak preparations for the deadly events.But the despondency reflected in the comment can be applied more generally. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon comes at a delicate time in the evolution of the technologies of surveillance and privacy. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, our attitude toward these tools may well take a turn that has profound implications for the way individuals are monitored and tracked, for decades to come.The first issue on the docket will be the fate of tools that enable citizens to encrypt their e-mail, documents and phone conversations as they zip through cyberspace and the ether....
  • Busted By The Copyright Cops

    When FBI agents arrested him in the parking lot of a Las Vegas hotel on July 16, Dmitry Sklyarov thought it must have been some mistake. These men would ask him who he was, and he would tell them: a benign 26-year-old computer programmer who'd come from his native Russia to give a technical talk, a graduate student of his nation's top engineering school, a family man about to return to his wife and two small children. And then they would realize their error and let him go. But he was indeed their intended target. For the next three weeks this slim, soft-spoken programmer was sucked into an American gulag. Eleven days in a Las Vegas jail, unable to contact his family. Then moved, in handcuffs and shackles, to an Oklahoma federal prison. Finally transported to San Jose, California, where he was given an opportunity to post $50,000 bail.His alleged crime? Writing Advanced eBook Processor, a computer program sold by his Russian employer, ElcomSoft, that allows purchasers of Adobe e...
  • Busted By The Copyright Cops

    When FBI agents arrested him in the parking lot of a Las Vegas hotel on July 16, Dmitry Sklyarov thought it must have been some mistake. These men would ask him who he was and he would tell them: a benign 26-year-old computer programmer who'd come from his native Russia to give a technical talk, a graduate student of his nation's top engineering school, a family man about to return to his wife and two small children. And then they would realize their error and let him go. But he was indeed their intended target. For the next three weeks, this slim, soft-spoken programmer was sucked into an American gulag. Eleven days in a Las Vegas jail, unable to contact his family. Then moved, in handcuffs and shackles, to an Oklahoma federal prison. Finally transported to San Jose, Calif., where he was given an opportunity to post $50,000 bail.His alleged crime? Writing Advanced eBook Processor, a computer program sold by his Russian employer, ElcomSoft, that allows purchasers of Adobe e-books to...
  • Shooting With Live Ammo

    Computer gamers are familiar with desktop scenarios that put them in the role of military generals. Surveying a field of battle on their monitors, they wage war by manipulating icons that represent weapons or regiments. This summer the hottest computer game of all is also being fought with icons on a screen--but the stakes are more than bragging rights in a late-night simulation of the Battle of the Bulge. Up for grabs are the access points to the wallets of 21st-century digital consumers. The combatants are the two mightiest warriors in the high-tech world: Microsoft and AOL Time Warner.The aforementioned icons involve pointers to the companies' respective online services, but there are a dizzying number of fronts in this battle--so many that it's easy to forget one competitor is a largely business-oriented, $360 billion software colossus and the other a $207 billion, consumer-directed media behemoth. As the competition goes from hardball to bean ball, it's also difficult to...
  • Random Access Online: Recipe For Success? Follow The Geeks

    The appointment is in a shiny skyscraper near the Shibuya train station, but it turns out that none of the three people I'm meeting are formally involved with the company that leased the offices in this tony facility. You could probably have figured this out by looking at them: in a space of Kubrickian immaculateness, Yuichi Kawasaki, Umeda Hidekazu and Toshimatsu Kawano are duded out in hacker grunge: T shirts and sneaks.And their version-creating an open, mobile peer-to-peer standard that will transform cell-phone communications into an amazing combination of Internet Relay Chat and Napster-puts them in an edgier zone than the carpeted conference room where the ubiquitous officeperson serves us tea. Clearly they are soul brethren of the wild-eyed wireheads who prowl the aisles of Fry's in Silicon Valley and wind up coming up with the ideas that drive Sand Hill Road venture capitalists giddy with glee.I've been hearing endlessly about how the educational system of Japan transforms...
  • Random Access Online: Calling The Net

    Here are two pictures to demonstrate how, in one important aspect of Internet technology, Japan is way ahead of the United States. The first I mentally snapped outside the Shibuya train station in Tokyo on a typical Saturday night. Near the statue of Hachiko-honoring a loyal dog who continued for years to meet the commuter train of his long-dead master-hundreds of teenagers gather, a beehive swarm of henna-ed humanity. Look closely: nearly every single one of this milling and mingling mob has a tiny cell phone, either pressed to an ear or cradled in one palm, the handset's matchbook-size monitor glowing as thumbs on both hands furiously punch the keypad.This, believe it or not, is just about the most popular way to use the Internet in Japan. Elsewhere in the world, cell phone Net access is mostly a dream still to be realized. But for 8 million Japanese today, the mobile phone is the only way onto the Internet. (Another 15 million use it in combination with PCs.) For teenagers, it's...
  • 'A Cloud Lifted'

    On an overcast afternoon last spring in his Redmond, Wash., office, Steve Ballmer stretched back at the end of another day as CEO of the world's biggest software company and considered a question: was this the best time in Microsoft's history? "In a product sense, this is as good a time as it's ever been," he said. "But I can't say it's the best time in our history because of that other thing still hanging over us."That "other thing" was the small matter of a federal order that Microsoft must be split in two like a stick of firewood, as a result of illegally abusing what Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson had deemed a monopoly position in computer software. But Ballmer and his partner, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, were confident (and most observers agreed) that the U.S. Court of Appeals would overturn Jackson's adoption of a government-suggested plan without holding evidentiary hearings. And last Thursday Gates and Ballmer got their wish--at least as far as the breakup went. Only a...
  • 'We Have To Act'

    Late last month Masayoshi Son, the billionaire CEO of Japan's leading Internet firm, Softbank, announced what might be his boldest venture: founding Yahoo BB, a company whose mission is to provide super-high-speed ADSL Internet connections to millions of Japanese for only about $18 a month. NEWSWEEK's Steven Levy spoke to Son in Tokyo. Excerpts: ...
  • Random Access Online: The Cost Of A Hip Landmark

    It stands out unforgettably on Jozenji-dori, the tree-lined main drag of Sendai: sleek and mind-jarringly out of place, like the obelisk in "2001." It is seven stories of a shiny greenish glass facade, through which massive tubes can be seen undulating through the building. It is the Sendai Mediatheque. Its goal was to put this north-central Japanese city, population about 1 million, on the world's cultural map. And in a sense, it has succeeded. But at what cost?In his recent book, "Dogs and Demons," long-time Japan resident Alex Kerr passionately rips into his adopted country, excoriating it for, among other things, diverting huge amounts of money to constructing monstrous-and monstrously expensive-"monuments" that have no connection to the Japanese character and often serve no reasonable purpose at all except enriching insiders and proving a misguided civic boost to its host locality. After reading Kerr's book and listening to his rants over dinner in Tokyo a few weeks ago, I've...
  • Random Access Online: Men In Gray

    My bureaucrat friend welcomes me to his workplace, filling an entire floor of one of the huge government buildings near Hibya. It is something out of the movie "Brazil," if you can picture the futuristic antiques utilized in that fictional world somehow streamlined and sanitized in the style of airport bathroom fixtures. There is a lack of privacy that makes the cubicles of Silicon Valley look like spacious and posh dens. Rows of gray desks have been pushed together side by side and at each one sits a man (mostly they are men) in a white shirt and tie, jacket draped over the chair. The men stare at gray laptop computers or squint at charts or graphs removed from neatly stacked piles of paper. Most do not have their own telephones, but have compensated by putting their mobiles on desktop cradles. My friend is obviously one of the senior workers, as his desk stands alone, with its back to the wall. And he has a phone. Also, his stacks of paper are higher. There is nowhere for a...
  • Random Access Online: The Son Comes Out

    "I imagine that people will call me crazy," says Masayoshi Son, barely able to contain his glee. I'm sitting across the table from one of most successful men in Japan-albeit one who has lost $15 billion in the last year-and thinking, yeah, crazy like a fox. Still, there's reason to consider whether this man known as "Japan's Bill Gates" has gone over the edge by undertaking a breathtakingly risky venture. It could be a move that thrusts Japan back into technological leadership and helps turn around the fortunes of the global Internet business. Or it could be the undoing of Son himself.Let me roll back the tape a bit. The previous morning, a call had gone out to Japan's newsrooms: Son would hold a press conference at the Okura Hotel at 3:30 that very afternoon. For months, sightings of the 43-year-old Internet billionaire had been rare, and some had been wondering whether he had been privately licking his wounds in the aftermath of a nosedive in the stock valuation of his company,...