Steven Levy

Stories by Steven Levy

  • Digital Music: Beyond 'Squirting'

    Have you squirted a song yet? That's the question Microsoft hopes your friends will ask you as you ponder which digital music player to acquire. After all, iPods don't squirt songs. And Microsoft's new player, Zune, does.What's a song-squirt? It's the first, and currently the only, application of the wireless connectivity built into every Zune. Squirting is a tune-sharing feature that works like this: with built-in Wi-Fi, your Zune can alert you to every other Zune within 10 meters, to which you can then send a song (or a podcast or a photo). If the potential recipient accepts the tune, in 10 or 15 seconds it's in his or her Zune.The catch is that the squirt is fast-drying--in three days it goes away. Or, if the recipient plays it three times within that period, it evaporates after the third spin. This is because Microsoft cut a lousy deal with the record labels, which still regard innovative digital schemes as potential piracy threats. My guess is that people will be turned off...
  • Zune Should Go Beyond 'Squirting'

    Have you squirted a song yet? That's the question Microsoft hopes your friends will ask you as you ponder which digital music player to acquire. Although you are more likely to buy an iPod this season--something even Microsoft admits--the software giant from Redmond is running a huge marketing campaign that it hopes will plant some seeds of doubt. After all, iPods don't squirt songs. And Microsoft's new player, Zune, does.What's a song-squirt? It's the first, and currently the only, application of the wireless connectivity built into every Zune. (In other respects, the Zune is a decent, if not compelling, alternative to the hard-disk-drive iPod.) Squirting is a tune-sharing feature that works like this: With its built-in Wi-Fi, your Zune can alert you to the presence of every other Zune within 30 feet; you can then choose to send a song (or even a podcast or a photo) to any of the neighboring devices. The potential recipient gets a message asking if he or she wants to accept the...
  • Interview: The Father of PlayStation

    On the eve of the Play-Station 3 launch, Ken Kutaragi, the head of Sony Computer Entertainment and the creator of all three generations of the hit game console, took time off to give a rare interview to NEWSWEEK's Steven Levy, via phone from Tokyo. ...
  • Playstation Strikes Back

    Sony's long-awaited new console has the computing power to bring games to the next level—what gamers call 'total immersion.' But good luck trying to find one.
  • Brightcove: A Safe Harbor?

    Since google bought youtube for $1.65 million last month, CEOs of other Internet video-related companies have been very popular. Jeremy Allaire is no exception. His two-year-old firm, Brightcove, has so far focused on helping publishers (including NEWSWEEK) get videos on the Net. Now Brightcove is creating a portal where visitors can surf thousands of channels of video uploaded by Brightcove's clients or even random creators, like YouTube's vid-stars. It will also sell videos directly through the AOL Marketplace. Allaire, 35, came to NEWSWEEK to show his wares, shrug off speculation on whether he's selling his closely held company, and explain why cable is an endangered species. ...
  • Tune Into Zune?

    Whether or not Apple's iPod is mortal, you can depend on Microsoft to keep trying to invent an iPod killer. To the Softies in Redmond, Wash., the thought of an Apple digital music device capturing three-quarters of the marketplace—and worse, an online store that handles over 80 percent of all legal music downloads—is more than a constant irritant. It's a threat to Microsoft's grand vision of becoming the standard platform for all media software. So while Microsoft executives privately concede the excellence of Apple's tiny white wonder, they are destined to spend sleepless nights plotting its demise.Lately I've been playing with the fruits of that insomnia: Zune, due for sale on Tuesday. I should say, Zune Version One of many to come. The division that created Zune is the same one that created the Xbox project, another very long-term assault on a dominant competitor. Like the Xbox, Microsoft sees Zune as a Long March, and is ready to spend five or even 10 years evolving the product...
  • Technology: A New Way To Blog

    Some bloggers aren't in the game to garner fame, earn fortune or take down politicians--they simply want to share their thoughts, songs and videos with friends and family. That's the target audience for Vox ( vox.com ), a free, easy-to-use service created by the blog software company Six Apart. Instead of broadcasting to the entire globe that you have a crush on the guy across the hall, your blog posts go only to the groups you specify--no worry that ex-spouses or college-admissions directors will come across them on Google. Vox also allows even the tech-timid to smoothly integrate media into their posts, and is especially amenable to importing stuff from Web sites like Flickr, Photobucket, Amazon and YouTube. And you can use it on your mobile phone.
  • Brightcove: A Safe Harbor?

    Since google bought youtube for $1.65 million last month, CEOs of other Internet video-related companies have been very popular. Jeremy Allaire is no exception. His two-year-old firm, Brightcove, has so far focused on helping publishers (including NEWSWEEK) get videos on the Net. Now Brightcove is creating a portal where visitors can surf thousands of channels of video uploaded by Brightcove's clients or even random creators, like YouTube's vid-stars. It will also sell videos directly through the AOL Marketplace. Allaire, 35, came to NEWSWEEK to show his wares, shrug off speculation on whether he's selling his closely held company, and explain why cable is an endangered species. ...
  • Now on GooTube: The Price Is Right

    Two cultures bumped (if not collided) in the wake of Google's $1.65 billion purchase of the Web video site YouTube. First came the Google conference call announcing the sale. It was a standard affair with leaders of both companies expressing appropriate enthusiasm and gabbing about a shift in digital media entertainment. Then came the YouTube version: co-founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley released their own statement, distributed via their own Web site, just as thousands of others submit videos every day. Filmed in the parking lot by a shaky-handed camcorder auteur, it was an unscripted no-budget production that ended with both of them bent in hysterical laughter about an inside joke that made sense only to videoheads in the YouTube community.Of course, that community watches about 100 million clips a day and has almost half the market share in the burgeoning field of Net video. So successful is YouTube that even the parties seemingly most threatened by it--record labels and...
  • Gadgets: Constant Reader

    Feel like lugging 80 books to your beach vacation? Didn't think so. But if the books were downloaded into the new Sony Reader, maybe you'd do it. No bigger than a mass-market paperback--and a lot trimmer--this electronic reading device indeed holds up to 80 electronic books (and even more if you use an optional memory stick). Its E Ink technology makes for clear reading--you can read a book, uh, cover to cover without straining your eyesight. The battery gives you 7,500 page turns between charges. Besides books, you can load text files, photos (they show up in black- and-white) and music. It costs $350 (buy before the end of the year and you get $50 worth of books free). In some ways the Reader isn't quite ready for teatime: in our testing it couldn't adequately handle pdf files (thus you can't read the public-domain books available in Google). And the only way to buy books is from the Sony Connect Store, a relatively limited emporium (10,000 titles, and not easily browsed) that won...
  • Sticking to The Business

    While some entrepreneurs in the current boom are proving that there are second acts in America, others are quietly proving that the first act isn't over. Case in point: Jake Winebaum. After starting Disney's first big Web effort, he joined with Earthlink founder Sky Dayton to create an "incubator" of businesses called eCompanies. One famous excess was a reported $7.5 million payment simply to secure the domain name for a new company called business.com. When the bust came, too many of the incubated babies didn't make it. But business.com kept going and, under Winebaum's stewardship, is a profitable "search engine for business" supported by lucrative pay-per-click ads. This week he will introduce work.com, a spinoff designed to provide "guides" (written not just on assignment but also by volunteers). Winebaum, 47, also blows off steam by extreme athletics; the weekend before he came to New York for our interview, he participated in the Everest Challenge, a two-day bike race in the...
  • Gadgets: MP3, Reloaded

    Most music lovers prefer to own their tunes, but more than a million subscribe to "the celestial jukebox"--paying a fee for unlimited plays from a vast catalog of songs. That number may increase with the Sansa e200R digital music player, designed to work with the Rhapsody subscription service. It's similarly shaped but not as slick as the iPod nano, and priced roughly the same ($180 for a 4-gigabyte model, $250 for 8 gigs). Once you get it and sign up with the Rhapsody-powered Best Buy Digital Music Store, you can load any song or album you choose and also sign up for constantly updating "channels" of your favorite micro-genre (Christian hip-hop, French lounge music). As long as you keep paying the $15 monthly fee, your pocket-size celestial jukebox will keep feeding you the latest and the greatest.
  • Celebrating a Web That's Free--For Now

    On the morning of OneWebDay--which occurred, in case you were too busy actually using the Web to notice, on Sept. 22--I had breakfast with Susan Crawford, the Cardozo Law School professor who organized the global event, and Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, who would speak at a lunchtime rally at the southern tip of Manhattan. Crawford explained to me that the day's festivities were a first shot at what she hoped would develop into a geeky parallel to Earth Day--annual worldwide celebrations of an invaluable resource.Though run on a shoestring (Crawford hit up her relatives for cash), the premiere OneWebDay generated upbeat events from Tokyo to Sofia. Hundreds posted blog items or uploaded Flickr pictures in celebration. But because Crawford wanted the best vibes possible, she consciously steered the public conversation away from a darker Internet topic, the one that dominated our morning discussion. Crawford and Newmark--along with almost all the early people who helped get the...
  • Wisdom From the Big Digg

    Some people say that the current Internet boom peaked when a national business magazine put a 29-year-old dude on the cover, declaring that the kid made $60 million in 18 months. Actually, Kevin Rose, founder of Digg.com, has yet to cash in. ("I ran to my checking account and logged in, but the money wasn't there," he says.) Nonetheless, Digg--which has users send in and rate news articles, blog postings and other Internet goodies--has had a huge impact. It's the 23rd most popular site on the Web (according to Alexa), and when an item has earned a sufficient number of "diggs" from users to make its front page, it's the digital equivalent of a starlet being discovered in a drugstore. On the weekly podcast Rose co-anchors (called Diggnation), he comes across as a cheerful slacker. But he's a serious guy when it comes to the subject of digital media. ...
  • Make Room on the Couch for Steve

    Steve Jobs's talk last week was nearing an end and coming dangerously close to a letdown. The stuff he introduced--a freshening-up of the iPod line and the ability to download movies on iTunes--had been largely expected. And he'd already used his famous fanfare--"One more thing ... "-- that usually precedes the introduction of a mind-blowing new product. But Jobs, with something still up his sleeve, this time announced "one last thing," and, in a break from tradition, unveiled a product that will not ship until next year. It's code-named iTV, a small box (the size of a sushi tray) intended to bridge the gap between the way we entertain ourselves on our computers and the way we distract ourselves in the living room.The early notice was necessary because, as Jobs realizes, the whole idea of downloading movies on your computer leads one to wonder why we can't easily watch the flicks where we usually do--on our TVs. "It would have been the first question out of everyone's mouth," Jobs...
  • Gadgets: Getting Smaller

    Christmas stockings, beware: you are about to undergo an invasion of small metallic devices. Apple's revamp of the iPod line includes a redesigned nano that features a more smudge-resistant aluminum skin (reminiscent of the covering on the ultrasleek mini-iPod) that comes in five colors, including a luminescent blue and a shocking pink. And the battery life is now 24 hours. Depending on how many songs it can hold (up to 2,000), the new nano costs from $149 to $249. Apple has also shrunk its screenless, 240-song iPod shuffle from a white plastic stick to a $79 half-ounce metallic clip-on that's barely bigger than a postage stamp. (For those with huge song libraries and a hankering to squint at TV shows, the standard high-storage, video-enabled iPod looks the same, but the screen is 60 percent brighter and it cost $50 less.)Meanwhile, Microsoft announced details of its new iPod rival, Zune (though not the price). It's got an FM radio, a bigger screen and Wi-Fi connectivity. It comes...
  • Living A Virtual Life

    Two years into the history of World of Warcraft--an online game that accommodates 7 million players around the world--no one had successfully ventured into the dungeon to slay a group of computer-generated villains known as the Four Horsemen. But four experienced "guilds" of players--one in Europe, two in America and one in China--were coming close, posting updates on separate Web sites they maintained. Finally, a 40-person contingent from a U.S. guild conquered the last beast--and its members became instant international celebrities in a massive community where dragons and Druids are as real as dirt.In the physical world we vainly scrounge for glory. Bin Laden still taunts us, the bus doors close before we reach them and leave us standing in the rain. But in the fantasy realm of Azeroth, the virtual geography of World of Warcraft, the physical pain comes only from hitting a keyboard too hard, camaraderie is the norm and heroism is never far away. In simple terms, Warcraft is the...
  • The Search Is On

    What could be more revealing than a list of one's search queries? The efficiency of finding what we need on the Web encourages us to quest away--whether we're researching a car purchase, puzzling out some medical symptoms, wondering what happened to an old friend, or (gasp) groping for erotica. "Your search record involves aspirations and dreams," says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It becomes almost a reflection of what's in one's head." And, as we learned recently, when America Online temporarily released the search history of thousands of customers for the use of researchers, those reflections can be retained by search companies--and, ultimately, exposed.The intimacy of our searches has led Rotenberg and other privacy experts to urge companies like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft not to retain such logs. But the top researchers in the search field believe that the information extracted from studying the way individuals search has been crucial in...
  • Will You Let Them Store Your Dreams?

    What could be more revealing than a list of one's search queries? The efficiency of finding what we need on the Web encourages us to quest away--whether we're researching a car purchase, puzzling out some medical symptoms, wondering what happened to an old friend or (gasp) groping for erotica. "Your search record involves aspirations and dreams," says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It becomes almost a reflection of what's in one's head." And, as we learned recently, when America On-line temporarily released the search history of thousands of customers for the use of researchers, those reflections can be retained by search companies--and, ultimately, exposed.In the AOL case, the records were supposedly anonymous, but since people commonly type in their own names and addresses into search engines, it's often trivial to identify who is searching. Indeed, The New York Times was able to deduce the identity of a 62-year-old widow in Georgia who researched...
  • Mao's Revenge

    Jaron Lanier is a man of many talents--virtual-reality pioneer, New Age composer, visual artist and artificial-intelligence scientist. Now Lanier has taken on another role: dyspeptic critic of the surging trend of digital collectivism, an ethic that celebrates and exploits the ability of the Web to aggregate the preferences and behaviors of millions of people. In a recent essay posted on the Web site Edge.org, Lanier disparages the recent spate of efforts that rely on conscious collaboration (like the anyone-can-participate online reference work Wikipedia) or passive polling (the so-called meta sites like Digg, which draw on user response to rank news articles and blog postings). To Lanier these represent a rejection of individual expression and creativity. To emphasize the enormity of this movement, Lanier titled his essay "Digital Maoism."Yes, to Lanier, subsuming one's identity into an electronically aggregated mass is akin to the mob fervor seen in China during the chairman's...
  • Poking a Stick Into The 'Hive Mind'

    Jaron Lanier is a man of many talents--virtual-reality pioneer, New Age composer, visual artist and artificial-intelligence scientist. Now Lanier has taken on another role: dyspeptic critic of the surging trend of digital collectivism, an ethic that celebrates and exploits the ability of the Web to aggregate the preferences and behaviors of millions of people. In a recent essay posted on the Web site Edge.org, Lanier disparages the recent spate of efforts that rely on conscious collaboration (like the anyone-can-participate online reference work Wikipedia) or passive polling (the so-called meta sites like Digg, which draw on user response to rank news articles and blog postings). To Lanier, these represent an alarming decision--rejecting individual expression and creativity to become part of a faceless mob. To emphasize the enormity of this movement, Lanier titled his essay with a fearsome moniker: "Digital Maoism."Yes, to Lanier, subsuming one's identity into an electronically...
  • Technology: Hooray, Hard Disk!

    If there's a bottle of vintage champagne you've been saving, next month is the time to pop it open: it's the 50th anniversary of hard-disk storage. Don't laugh. On Sept. 13, 1956, IBM shipped the first unit of the RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) and started a process that would change the way we live.The RAMAC, designed in Big Blue's San Jose, California, research center, is the ultimate ancestor of that 1.8-inch drive that holds 7,500 songs inside your pocket-size $299 iPod. Of course, the RAMAC would have made a lousy music player. The drive weighed a ton, and to lease it you'd pay $250,000 a year in today's dollars. Its 50 spinning iron-oxide-coated disks stored 5 megabytes--not quite enough to hold two MP3 copies of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog."Yet those who beheld the RAMAC were astonished. "It was the first to offer random access, whereas before you would have to wind a tape from one end to the other to access data," recalls Jim Porter, who worked at...
  • The Hard Disk That Changed the World

    If there's a bottle of vintage champagne you've been saving, next month is the time to pop it open: it's the 50th anniversary of hard-disk storage. Don't laugh. On Sept. 13, 1956, IBM shipped the first unit of the RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) and set in motion a process that would change the way we live.The RAMAC, designed in Big Blue's San Jose, Calif., research center, is the ultimate ancestor of that 1.8-inch drive that holds 7,500 songs inside your pocket-size $299 iPod. Of course, the RAMAC would have made a lousy music player. The drive weighed a full ton, and to lease it you'd pay about $250,000 a year in today's dollars. Since it required a separate air compressor to protect the two moving "heads" that read and wrote information, it was noisy. The total amount of information stored on its 50 spinning iron-oxide-coated disks--each of them a pizza-size 24 inches--was 5 megabytes. That's not quite enough to hold two MP3 copies of Elvis Presley's "Hound...
  • My Secret Life as a Penny-Stock Tout

    Gotten any spam lately? Of course you have. Despite blockers, blacklists, whitelists and even federal regulation, those infuriating incursions on your in box continue. Now let me ask a more embarrassing question: gotten any spam from me lately? It may well be that some of your unwelcome e-mail, specifically touting hot investments in obscure microcap companies, appear to have been sent by someone whose Internet address comes from the domain stevenlevy.com. If you check it out, you will indeed find that the owner of that domain is not the ESPN sportscaster, the Suffolk (N.Y.) county executive or the University of California, Berkeley, quarterback, but moi .In truth, I'm innocent. My domain name is being used as a phony return address by spammers wishing to hide the real origin of their come-ons. I discovered this when I suddenly began receiving dozens of bounced e-mail messages and out-of-office replies referencing mail I hadn't sent. (My ISP forwards all stevenlevy.com mail directly...
  • Will the 'Tail' Kill The Water Cooler?

    It used to be that taking a break from work to fill up our Dixie Cups at the water cooler was a ritual accompanied by harmless conversation about a predictably limited number of pop-culture subjects. We had access to only a few television stations. We listened to the same songs on Top 40 radio. We all read the local newspaper. So there was always something obvious to talk about. Now some people are saying that water-cooler talk is impoverished--or even endangered. Because the digital age lets us indulge our individual passions, the argument goes, we're losing the shared experience that fuels workplace chatter.The Internet in particular has transformed a world from one of bounded choices to one where we can get anything imaginable. Increasingly, we're eschewing the blockbusters to pursue our own quirky interests. A good percentage of the vast inventory on e-commerce sites like Amazon, iTunes and Netflix isn't popular enough to be offered in brick-and-mortar stores. But online costs...
  • Geezer-Pleasers

    There's an upside and a downside to being a music-loving baby boomer. The upside is that you had a chance to see Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and maybe even some of the original Motown groups. The downside is that every day you're getting closer to meeting Jimi Hendrix. Before that happens, though, why not hear some new sounds to augment those Beatles, Dylan and Talking Heads tunes you've played a billion times? It turns out there's a way to identify new artists to add to the vast digital expanse of your iPod--ones that fit your personal sweet spot--without schlepping around in the desert heat of the Coachella Festival. Just do what you do when you want to find anything these days: go to the Web. The advent of digital music (with the help of a new tech boom) has led to an explosion of start-ups whose goal is to direct users to artists and songs that satisfy their individual tastes. These turn out to be perfect for rockers of a certain age who crave the energy and innovation of new bands,...
  • All Predators, All the Time? Maybe Not.

    Dateline NBC's" "To Catch a Predator" series is can't-take-your-eyes-off-it television. The format is familiar by now: lured by the promise of sexual contact with a minor discovered in an Internet chat room, one creepy adult after another shows up at a house where parents are supposedly away. But instead of hooking up with a pliant teenager, the predators encounter 6-foot-3 "Dateline" correspondent Chris Hansen, who verbally reduces them to squirming grubs before dispatching them into the hands of collaborating cops. The thrill of seeing potential child molesters punk'd has drawn high ratings, and NBC has so far packaged five such investigations into twice as many shows. As Hansen explained to me recently, "Dateline" is performing a service: letting people know that really bad guys are out there.But there's a downside to the "Dateline" series. Casual viewers may wind up equating the Internet itself with evil--and let fear affect their responses to this crucial medium. Scott...
  • Going Faster

    One of the tougher jobs in high tech is making a transition from a dying technology to a thriving one. Such is the task of Garry Betty, CEO of one of the nation's oldest Internet service providers. Without benefit of a built-in wire to people's homes (an advantage of the telcos and cable companies), he has to move his base from dial-up service to broadband. (Currently only 1.7 million of his customers are high-speed; he has 2.1 million dial-up customers as well as 1.4 million low-price dial-up customers from the former People PC company.) Betty is looking forward to voice-over-Internet schemes, mobile phones (like an investment with Helio, a youth-oriented start-up begun by EarthLink's founder, Sky Dayton) and providing Wi-Fi to municipalities like Anaheim, Calif., and Philadelphia. Betty, 49, joined EarthLink in 1996, after leaving a job at Digital Communications Associates (where he was the youngest CEO on the New York Stock Exchange). He talked to us by landline about EarthLink's...
  • Bill Gates Goes Part Time at Microsoft

    For two years now, Bill Gates has been wrestling with a dilemma. As his foundation, funded by $29 billion of his donations, became increasingly influential in fields like global health and education, it became clear that if he spent more time there, it could have a huge impact on the world. But he loved his work as chief brain of Microsoft, the company he cofounded in 1975. Last week he made the decision: beginning in July 2008, he will assume full-time duties at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He will keep his post as Microsoft's chairman, but spend only 20 percent of his time there. His duties will fall to chief technical officers Ray Ozzie (who becomes the new chief software architect) and Craig Mundie, who will oversee the company's research efforts. CEO Steve Ballmer will continue to run the company, but without the full-time counsel of his best friend and the icon who is synonymous with the world's biggest software company. I spoke to an energized Gates, 50, in his...