Stories by Steven Levy

  • Sheafless In Seattle: Will This Cyber Mag Fly?

    MICHAEL KINSLEY'S long-awaited new magazine debuts in mid-June. But don't look for it on the newsstand. The former New Republic editor and liberal TV pundit has joined computer-software behemoth Microsoft to pioneer a publication circulated in cyberspace. In honor of this novelty, Kinsley has dubbed his brainchild Slate, ""as in blank,'' he explains. But the name is also subversive. After all, slate, as defined by Microsoft's electronic encyclopedia, is ""dense, fine-grained, fissile rock'' -- a rather low-tech association for an electronic magazine. This reflects the tricky balancing act that Kinsley is attempting: a magazine that maintains traditional journalistic values, yet is distributed in the nascent, raucous medium of the World Wide Web. ...
  • Calling All Computers

    FED UP WITH LONG-DISTANCE RATES? Had it with commercials promising a crummy 10 or 20 percent reduction in those rates? Well, now you can really switch-not to a different phone provider but to the Internet. Then you can reap savings that Candice Bergen never imagined, cutting your tariffs in some cases, from hundreds of dollars to, um, zero. For instance: if you pay the monthly flat rate that's common in cyberspace connections, you could get up in the morning and begin a phone call to a pal across the city, the country or the globe, and keep the line open to swap observations and bon mots all day, or all week. The price: not a penny more on your $19.95 monthly bill. ...
  • The Browser War

    KIM BARKSDALE IS A 52-YEAR-old Mississippian who finds himself a field general, fighting a virtual battlefield. His company is Netscape, Silicon Valley's youthful flagship of the Internet boom, boasting millions of users and a market valuation in the $4 billion range. His prime weapon is a software program known as a browser, designed for cruising the World Wide Web and animating the information one encounters there. His position is enviable: 85 percent of all Web riders use the Netscape Navigator. His foe's browser, the Explorer, has a market share below 10 percent. But since Explorer is made by Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash., software colossus, most observers rate the battle as a tossup. ...
  • Blood In The Browser War

    EVEN THOSE TECHNO-SAVVY few who thought they understood the balance of power between companies like Microsoft, Netscape and America Online found themselves, at least temporarily, in a vertigo of confusion last week. The trouble came with apparently conflicting reports of deals cut between the three firms. On Monday America Online, the biggest commercial online service, agreed to license software made by Netscape, the start-up company currently setting standards for the Internet while obsessing Wall Street with its roller-coaster stock price. Everybody assumed this meant that AOL's 5 million customers would be surfing the World Wide Web with Netscape's Navigator browser, the tool that lets you hop around the Net with simple clicks of a computer mouse. But the very next day AOL's chairman, Steve Case, teaming up with Microsoft's towheaded leader, Bill Gates, explained that the Netscape deal was relatively limited. Instead, it would be Microsoft's browser, the Internet Explorer, that...
  • How To Cast A Wider Net

    THE COOL THING TO TALK about on the Net these days is the sudden uncoolness of the Net. It's the old Yogi Berra joke gone cyber: nobody goes online anymore, because it's too damn crowded. Worse, the newcomers are craven arrivistes; their inexperience is the virtual equivalent of Bermuda shorts and cameras around their necks. Well, tough luck, trendsetters--the Net, and particularly that multimedia, publishing-based portion of it called the World Wide Web, is quickly coming of age as our next mass medium. So far, everybody's been complaining about ease-of-use and speed problems (page 46). But the more profound questions deal with content: can you really draw throngs of people by offering bunches of bits? What do consumers really want from Web sites? Is there money in it? ...
  • Tangled Up In Deep Blue

    I SPENT VALENTINE'S DAY IN PHILADELPHIA, celebrating the birth of the computer and staring into the scary face of its future. First stop was the University of Pennsylvania, where Vice President Al Gore would reactivate a part of ENIAC, the first large-scale general-purpose computer. Originally funded by the army to calculate artillery firing tables, the device filled 1,800 square feet and was stuffed with 17,468 vacuum tubes. Though ENIAC was less powerful than today's throwaway pocket calculators, its first public demonstration, exactly 50 years ago, marked the dawn of the Information Age. ...
  • Now For The Free-For-All

    Tear down the Ramparts! In the breathless adrenaline high resulting from passage of the massive Telecommunications Act of 1996, supporters are crowing that this is the electronic equivalent of the fall of communism. "The Berlin walls of the telecom industry are going to be brought down as this legislation is implemented," an ebullient Vice President Al Gore told NEWSWEEK. But where are the bricks going to land? The vast majority in Congress (414 to 16 in the House and 91 to 5 in the Senate) seems to think they will harmlessly flutter to earth. Critics, however, fear those bricks will drop on the noggins of consumers. Undoubtedly, Congress has taken a Brobdingnagian step in determining the ground rules of 21st-century telecommunications -- but since no one really knows what the electronic landscape of the next era will look like, it's impossible to judge the effect of those rules. ...
  • The Apple Of His Eye

    Hello, out there in Geekdom. By the time you read this, the big deal may be done. Sun Microsystems may have swallowed your beloved Apple Computer. Or maybe Apple will have spurned its too ardent urge to merge and embraced some other suitor--Oracle Corp., perhaps, or even Kirk Kerkorian. Who knows? Only one thing can be said with surety: last week was a wild one in the unbridled mergers-and-acquisitions biz. ...
  • A Quick Rx For Apple

    THE WOLVES ARE CIRCLING cupertino these days, fangs gleaming as they savor the dazed and stumbling form of Apple Computer. We already knew that out of every 10 key-board-tappers, nine are most likely using a computer that runs Microsoft's Windows operating system. Now comes news of Apple's calamitous first quarter, which ended in December. Usually Christmas sales make this a bounteous earning period ($188 million in 1994). This year, the company took a $69 million loss, generating panic among stockholders and customers. Even some loyalists who formerly bled in rainbow colors now claim reluctance to stick with the Macintosh standard. Things are so bad that when executives reportedly tried to sell Apple to companies that once coveted it--places like Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard--nobody wanted to buy. When analysts talk of Apple now, you'd think they were ordering breakfast: the operant word seems to be "toast." ...
  • Dead Men Walking?

    Poor Compuserve. For more than a decade now, this online service has been building a subscriber base, now over 4 million. Then comes the biggest competition of all--the Net. Like archrivals Prodigy and America Online, CompuServe decides to offer Internet goodies. What happens? When a Bavarian prosecutor complains about some Internet newsgroups that CompuServe carries, its executives all too readily agree to a blackout-to all its customers worldwide. And gets hammered for it. Just one more debacle for the proprietary online services, a display of cluelessness not seen since, oh, a month before, when America Online, in its stab at self-censorship, blipped out all uses of the word "breast," silencing a cancer-discussion group. ...
  • This Changes . . . Everything

    Tucked in the back of a low-slung building off a highway service road in Mountain View, Calif., is one of the few physical epicenters of the virtual monster that ate 1995: the Internet. Walk past a handful of windowless of-flees -- some of them populated by exhausted programmers in sleeping bags--turn left at the mountain bikes and enter the eerie, air-conditioned serenity of a small room stuffed with racks of dull metallic monitorless computers. ...
  • Bill's New Vision

    Who's that guy next to bill gates?" The question comes from one of the 200,000 conventioneers at the mammoth Comdex computer show in Las Vegas, and the answer is Tom Brokaw, whose face is not exactly unknown in most of America. But as Brokaw conducts a roving interview past the gleaming booths representing the giants of silicon--Sony, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and, of course, Microsoft-chipheads abandon their commerce and jerk their heads backward in astonishment, not at the NBC anchorman but at the tousle-haired 40-year-old animatedly conversing with him, seemingly oblivious of the camera crew ahead and a growing procession of gawkers behind, trailing through the carpeted aisles like a human comet's tail. It's him! The King of Comdex, if not the computer industry, if not the future itself. The richest man on the planet, and maybe the smartest: William Henry Gates III. ...
  • In Search Of Liner Notes

    The quintessential musical experience of the '60s and '70s-for me and my boomer generation, at least--was purr chasing a new record, spreading out on the couch or bed and examining the album package with forensic intensity while the speakers blared. The compact disc put an end to that, and it's too bad. The big, flat cardboard provided a perfect canvas for a visual counterpart to the music. If there were lyrics printed, we'd follow. along, and soon have them memorized. After a few plays, we'd even be able to recite the credits by rote. Album art mattered-quick, name 10 people on the "Sgt. Pepper" cover--and companies and artists constantly struggled over the packaging, as if an overly overt sexual signifier were a threat to society itself. All this seems unspeakably quaint in the days of CD. Sure, somewhere inside that impossible-to-open CD "jewel box" is a printed folder with art and text, but the pictures have the visual impact of postage stamps, and reading the copy requires a...
  • The End Of Money?

    You're cruising the Net, hopping from link to link with your favorite browser. In a small window in the corner of your screen sits a ledger. "$100.00," it reads. As you land on a favorite Web site, something strikes your fancy--an annotated bibliography of every article ever written about Sandra Bullock! Only five bucks. You click on a button, and the file is downloaded to your computer. That tiny ledger on your screen now reads "$95.00." ...
  • Stop Talking Dirty To Me

    FOR THE BRIEFEST OF moments, I sensed that a turning point had been reached in the seemingly interminable- and needlessly destructive--discussion of sex and computers. This scene was a late-September conference in Kassel, Germany, called Millennium Days, an attempt to kick-start local awareness of important cyberspace issues, economic and social. Since any treatment of cyberspace is considered impoverished if sex isn't on center stage, we were treated to Stahl Stenslie, a 30-year-old Norwegian researcher demonstrating something called "InterSkin." As dramatized by two actors outfitted in unwieldy spandex-like garments holding vibrating sensors in place, it played like a parody of a porno flick. But at the event's closing session, an observer finally asserted that enough was enough. While the conference had been generally illuminating, he said, the sex stuff was ill considered and "simply not interesting." Much of the audience burst into applause. ...
  • Gimme Software

    The Power-guitar chords are unmistakably familiar, imprinted on us through decades of party time. They are the opening bars of "Start Me Up," the Rolling Stones tune rented by Microsoft to anthemize its ultra-ballyhooed computer-operating system, Windows 95. The purchase of that classic hook symbolizes the brilliant way that Microsoft marketing wizards have managed to transmogrify a technological molehill into the Mount McKinley of software. In fact, the most impressive aspect of Windows 95 is just that: the way it promotes the ascension of computers, a formerly opaque scientific domain, into the center of American culture. ...
  • How Apple Became Avis

    At last week's Macworld Expo, the semiannual gathering of the Macintosh faithful, Apple Computer presented a self-congratulatory retrospective of its advertising. Lined up like trophies were examples of its marketing prowess over the past 10 years. But viewed another way, the exhibit symbolizes a great company in denial. It is the eve of the Windows 95 tsunami, and Apple is in danger of being swamped. Yet the company chooses to celebrate an ad campaign that failed to persuade most users to consider buying a genuinely superior product. Poor marketing, though, is only one reason that the smoothest, cleverest and most engaging computer system is now in danger of becoming marginal.It must be unimaginably frustrating to be an Apple executive these days. The world is a buzz with Windows 95, whose flashiest features were first conceived more than a decade ago by Apple hackers. When Apple packaged its first Macintosh, offering a level of ease of use and integration that Microsoft still hasn...
  • The Wire Wars

    There was a significant blip last week in this summer of Windows 95 hype: Netscape Communications, the company with hopes of becoming the Microsoft of the Net, went public. It was Wall Street Meets Cyberspace, a love affair burning hot, and when it was through a 15-month-old company that hasn't yet turned a dime of profit wound up valued at almost half the worth of the newly bartered CBS television network. Five million shares offered at $28 apiece skyrocketed to the mid-$70s before settling at the still-gargantuan level of $58 a share. (It closed the week at $52.) Such is the current frenzy over the Internet. Digital communications and commerce are going to dominate business in the next century, and everybody wants a stake, pronto.Netscape's giddy Wall Street debut kicks off the official Internet wars. Software superpower Microsoft is the foe, and it sees Windows 95 as its entree. Everyone who installs Windows 95 gets a little on-screen icon, called the Microsoft Network (MSN),...
  • No Place For Kids?

    When The Annals Of Cyberspace are uploaded for future generations, digital historians will undoubtedly include a scene from the Senate chamber earlier this month: Nebraska Democrat James Exon brandishing a thin binder now known as the blue book. Inside were images snatched from the shadows and thrust into the center of public discourse. Women bound and being burned by cigarettes. Pierced with swords. Having sex with a German shepherd. As Exon puts it, images that are "repulsive and far off base." Images from the Net. ...
  • A Bad Day In Cyberspace

    You knew it was going to be a bad day for cyberspace when Sen. James Exon invoked both heaven and hell in pleading his amendment to the sprawling telecommunications bill that would delete free speech from the Internet. Heaven came in the form of a prayer, custom crafted by the Senate chaplain, thanking God for giving us computers and petitioning for wisdom in regulating their use. Hell was embodied in a thick blue binder stuffed, we were told, with shocking graphics obtained by venturing into the Stygian back alleys of the Information Highway.While it is perfectly fine to ask divine guidance in choosing a legislative course, that is no substitute for making an effort to understand what you're voting on. Last Wednesday the United States Senate did not do so, and instead voted 86 to 14 in favor of Exon's amendment, cleverly entitled the Communications Decency Act. Thus did the Senate take a sledgehammer to our single most promising new medium. The Congress that pledged to keep...
  • The Luddites Are Back

    It took Kirkpatrick sale two blows with a sledge-hammer to destroy the IBM PC he brought to his appearance at New York City's Town Hall last January in a "Vision Fest" sponsored by the Utne Reader. Sale, a longtime leftist critic, doesn't like technology in general and computers in particular. On the very first page of his book "Rebels Against the Future" -- a historical account of the 19th-century Luddite war against the Industrial Revolution, with misguided commentary on its relevance to our time -- he apologizes that the book was published with modern technology. This meant that the means of production were "not entirely neutral and untainted." The world would be better, Sale thinks, if computers simply went away.Sale's book places him in the vanguard of a group of anti-technologists who view the digital revolution with a sense of horror and dread. Though these works do not yet threaten to eclipse the flood of "How to Use the Internet" tomes, it does seem to be a mini-boom of...
  • Waiting For Spielberg

    Can a computer game make you cry?" That was the provocative question posed by an upstart software house in its first aa campaign, more than a decade ago. Though the company (Electronic Arts) was ultimately successful, the promise implicit in the marketing campaign has yet to be fulfilled. Interactive programs may be a multibillion-dollar industry, but by and large they don't reach our imaginations--or our hearts-as much as a mildly compelling genre movie does, or even an afternoon soap. Computer games divert, addict, sometimes even teach. But they don't make you cry. ...
  • Computers Go Bio

    COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY THESE DAYS RUMBLES LIKE A bullet train, zipping through the landscape at speeds once thought unimaginable. Those inside the train grow accustomed to the intense velocity and the steady cadence of wheels against rails: faster cheaper faster cheaper faster cheaper... But every so often something happens that clues you to the fact that things are really spinning faster than your imagination can handle. Such an event is the equivalent of peering out the window of the bullet train and watching in astonishment as an unfamiliar vehicle zips by you with a fearsome whoosh. As if on were standin still. ...
  • The Encryption Wars: Is Privacy Good Or Bad?

    There was a moment of weirdness late last month in Burlingame, Calif., when a 41-year-old computer programmer, looking slightly uncomfortable in a tailored suit, ambled up to a podium to accept the coveted Pioneer award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "I think it's ironic," said Phil Zimmermann, "that the thing I'm being honored for is the same thing that I might be indicted for."For two years, a federal prosecutor in San Jose has been investigating Zimmermann for violating export regulations in distributing what is probably the world's most popular software for protecting electronic communications. People who use his Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) program-for which he charges no fee -regard the Boulder, Colo., father of two as a hero, the person who has granted them the freedom, as he puts it, "to whisper something in someone's ear a thousand miles away." But the U.S. government sees the global proliferation of PGP and similar programs as a menace-and, maybe, a crime. Therein...
  • Indecent Proposal: Censor The Net

    Jim Exon does not want to be known as the censor of cyberspace. The Democratic senator from Nebraska has insisted that his aim is protecting children, not muzzling the millions of people accustomed to electronic free speech. But last Thursday his so-called Communications Decency Act passed the Senate Commerce Committee. Despite his protestations, if this bill is made into law, the digital frontier will instantly be transformed from our most wide-open preserve of untrammeled speech to a place where even common forms of expression are outlawed. ...
  • Virtual Social Climbing

    It used to be that simply owning a modem qualified you as a person poised on the cutting edge. No matter that the most of the discretionary discussions on the Net a decade or so ago were the stuff of technical manuals and nerd joke books and that, with the low-speed modems of the day, the text scrolled across your screen at the pace of the O. J. Simpson trial. You were on the newest frontier, a bold experiment where all humans were regarded without prejudice and preconception. On the Net, you would be judged by your words alone; petty trappings of the material world were to be left at the desktop. This egalitarianism seemed too good to last, and it didn't. Today, just as other ills of the so-called ""meat world'' have found their way to cyberspace, a status consciousness has come to the Net. ...
  • Antitrust And Common Sense

    So many documents, arguments, amicus briefs and decisions have been generated in United States of America v. Microsoft Corporation that one could probably use them to paper the walls of Bill Gates's sprawling new manse. As of now, the last word belongs to Judge Stanley Sporkin, a latecomer to what has turned into a bizarre lovefest between the plaintiff -- the Department of Justice -- and the defendant, the planet's largest computer-software company. Sporkin's decision rambles and roars for 49 pages, mulling the question of whether Justice truly addressed the issue of Microsoft's potential violation of antitrust laws, using a monopoly position in one area of software to gain unfair advantage in others. Finally, Judge Sporkin, a former chief of enforcement for the SEC, nixed the Microsoft-friendly consent decree agreed upon between Justice and the Redmond, Wash., software giant. ...
  • Technomania

    It's difficult to tell just when the information revolution started spinning out of control. Maybe it was when we learned that the Intel Corp.'s popular Pentium microprocessor had a problem performing long division. While physicists dueled about its significance, millions of people spent the holiday buying season trying to figure out if whether the INTEL INSIDE sticker on Pentium computers was an endorsement or a warning label. ...
  • The Case For Hackers

    THOSE HACKERS ARE AT IT AGAIN. Last week we learned of yet another cunning attack against Internet security measures. The familiar headlines returned: no computer is safe from evil techno-hooligans prowling the Net. As if hackers are the most menacing threat to smooth operation of the electronic highway. As if stopping them will resolve the problems in cyberspace. ...

Pages