Steven Levy

Stories by Steven Levy

  • Ask the Technologist

    It's certainly true that Macs are far less virus-prone than PCs. Symantec's security team has yet to find a single Mac virus; by contrast, it spotted almost 11,000 new Windows viruses in the first half of 2005 alone. Apple may play down its track record in order to avoid making itself a target; in computer security, pride comes before a fall.
  • Our 'Can't We All Just Get Along?' Awards

    Who doesn't love DVDs? They are cheap, ubiquitous and do their job well. One reason for their instant success is that--unlike the initial situation with videocassette tapes--you never have to worry about whether you're buying the "right"-format DVD: all discs play on all players. Now get ready for a shock: the next generation of DVD, engineered to play high-definition movies, just could become another Betamax-VHS train wreck. As if life wasn't confusing enough, you may have to worry whether the high-def movie you buy is a Blu-ray (supported by Sony, Dell and HP) or an HD-DVD (the choice of Toshiba, Microsoft and Intel).It's one more round in a tired old game where companies put their parochial concerns ahead of the well-being (and sanity) of consumers. All too often, this doesn't work with that, and the reason usually is that that companies exploit incompatibility between products to extend a competitive advantage. Could it be, for instance, that Microsoft's endorsement of HD-DVD...
  • Technology: Know Your iPods

    Since Apple phased out the original iPod and the Mini to make room for two new models, you might be wondering which one to buy. A rundown: ...
  • Ask the Technologist

    I'd like to replace my VCR with a digital video recorder, but I don't want to pay TiVo or DirecTV a monthly fee. Is there a machine that fits the bill? --Christopher Bird, Riner, Va.Microsoft Media Center Edition PCs, which come from a variety of manufacturers like Dell, HP and Sony, should do the trick. Connect it to your cable box and you can record shows to the PC's hard drive, just as you would with TiVo. If you want to watch one live show while recording another, be sure to buy a dual-tuner Media Center.
  • Turning the Car Keys Over to the Car

    At first, Sebastian Thrun didn't feel quite comfortable behind the wheel of the modified Volkswagen Touareg R5 named Stanley. That's understandable, because he wasn't driving. Stanley was. As the Stanford University entrant in the DoD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) $2 million Grand Challenge, Stanley was designed to compete against 26 other driverless robot vehicles in a race through 132 miles of hostile terrain in the Mojave Desert. On test drives (the real race would be run with no passengers), Thrun had a red panic button to stop the car when Stanley failed to notice a sharp turn, or swerved toward the brush to avoid an obstacle that wasn't there. After months of software tweaking, Stanley got so good at driving that Thrun, head of Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab, relaxed, even allowing himself to gab on a cell phone or consult his maps while Stanley made its way through tough desert roads. Thrun and his team began to think that on Oct. 8, Stanley...
  • The Next Picture Show

    Steve Jobs had some 'splain-in' to do. He's spent the last couple of years insisting that no one wants to watch video on the puny screens in handheld devices. But last week Apple's charismatic CEO introduced the fifth generation of his monstrously popular iPod. And this one... does video. It will screen your home movies, music videos and TV shows downloaded from the iTunes store (we'll get to that bombshell in a second). Though the screen is bigger than the one on the previous 'pod, it's still tinier than a standard Post-it note. What gives?"This is the best iPod for music that we've ever made," explains Jobs, tearing off its attributes (30 percent thinner, more storage on the low-end $299 model). "Millions of people are going to buy this to listen to music--and video is going to come along as a bonus . So if anything is going to happen in portable video, it will happen on the iPod. We'll find out what happens."But while video on the iPod is an experiment, Jobs's plan to sell music...
  • CAN STRINGER FIX SONY ON THE RUN?

    When Sir Howard Stringer became the first gaijin (non-Japanese) to head the legendary electronics-and-entertainment giant Sony last June, it didn't really seem so shocking. Several years earlier, such a selection would have been mind-boggling, as Sony, despite being one of the more cosmopolitan corporations in Japan, was as deeply steeped in tradition as a strong brew of green tea. What mitigated the surprise was the company's plight, a grim combination of red ink and the humiliation of losing in the very product areas it once dominated; things like televisions and portable audio. Plus, its movie studio had made "Gigli."Likewise, it's no big jolt that after months of Magellanesque travel between New York and Tokyo (with stopovers to see his family in Britain), Stringer has come up with the first fruits of his plan to save Sony--and they focus on firing 10,000 people and reorganizing the company to make it a flatter, less feudal organization. Stringer, though famously affable in...
  • THE MIND OF AN INVENTOR

    ARE INVENTORS BORN, OR ARE THEY MADE? Danny Hillis, who can't remember a time when he wasn't trying to make mind-blowing stuff, comes at the question, as usual, from an unexpected angle: potential inventors are un-made. "In some sense, every kid is inventive," he says. Without encouragement, a child's gleeful penchant for experimentation becomes endangered. "Kids invent things all the time until they get to school and adults tell them they shouldn't be wasting their time doing silly stuff," says Bran Ferren, Hillis's partner at Applied Minds, a company that invents amazing things for corporations like General Motors and institutions like the United States government.Fortunately for Hillis, his approach to the world is as fresh and playful as it was in the fourth grade, when he decided to build a robot out of paint cans, motors and light bulbs. The only difference is that his inventions are now aimed at starting new businesses, sustaining our soldiers and finding effective...
  • ASK THE TECHNOLOGIST

    I'm looking for a digital camera--not a mobile phone--that has wireless built in. Wouldn't that offer greater flexibility to share photos with people?Nikon has two cameras--the Coolpix P1 and P2 units--that offer built-in Wi-Fi. Kodak has taken this concept one step further by pairing its new EasyShare One digital camera with its online photo-sharing service. You'll be able to upload your pictures to Kodak's Web site, as well as browse pictures you've already stored.Steven Levy
  • EBAY'S BET: THE SKYPE'S THE LIMIT

    When I talked to Meg Whitman last week, we used plain old telephones. But since both of us belong to the 54 million-member Skype community--a global society one joins simply by signing up to use that company's voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service--we could have had the conversation free via laptops and our Net connections. Or she could have Skyped me (yes, it's a verb) from her computer to my land line, paying a couple of cents a minute. It would have been appropriate because eBay CEO Whitman has just spent $2.6 billion of her company's cash and stock to buy Skype, a move that seems destined to become a marker of cataclysmic change.So what's the change, exactly? That takes some explaining. One benefit of the deal Whitman touts--the ability to vocally connect eBay buyers and sellers--seems kind of dumb. eBay's online-auction model works so well because sellers reach millions of people by simply posting an item. Having actual conversations between buyers and sellers--with all...
  • Q&Amp;A With Steven Levy: Ballmer Unbound

    Microsoft's CEO has always been hard core, whether leading cheers at employee meetings, strategizing to maintain the company's status as the world's biggest software firm or upbraiding analysts for insufficient bullishness on the company he joined in 1980. And according to a deposition in a court case involving Google's brain-raid on Microsoft's top talents, he's still capable of going over the top; the defector telling the tale said Ballmer reacted to the betrayal by tossing a chair and vowing to bury Google's CEO. Ballmer released a statement disputing the account, and left it at that. But in an interview with NEWSWEEK he did speak candidly on a number of issues, including a new business initiative, the tardiness of the next version of Windows and, oh yes, Google.Newsweek: What's behind the new small- and midsize-business initiative Microsoft just announced? ...
  • Sports: Would You Buy T.O.?

    Is plain old fantasy football not time-wasting enough for you? A new twist promises more addictiveness--and is even more nerdy. This week a Silicon Valley start-up called Protrade (protrade.com) is launching an "athlete market" that merges the high-pressure action of stock-market trading with the skills of sports prognostication. The site is like a brokerage house where you buy and sell players. Their value fluctuates according to complicated calculations that supposedly track an athlete's feats to the value he brings to the team. (The secret sauce is a "Moneyball" -style formula.) If you buy shares in a blue-chip stock like Peyton Manning, you can expect regular dividends based on his performance--and if you take a chance on a rookie like Ryan Moats, you'll make a killing if he gets the ball and runs with it. Participants compete in various "challenges" (some free, others requiring a buy-in); the winner is the one whose portfolio grows the most. Prizes range from signed Ben...
  • Honey, I Shrunk The Ipod. A Lot.

    Ever since it was clear that Apple's 2001 foray into digital music would be a smashing success, naysayers have been proclaiming that it was only a matter of time before competitors would catch up to and eventually surpass the wildly popular iPod player. Even though this prediction has so far proved no more reliable than an Enron balance sheet--as of this summer, the iPod was claiming a 74 percent market share of digital music players--Apple CEO Steve Jobs feels the pressure. "Playing it safe is the most dangerous thing we can do," he recalls telling a gathering of Apple's hundred brightest execs and engineers last year. "We have to get bolder."So Jobs and his team undertook a big initiative to come up with a new iPod model that wouldn't just improve its predecessors but "change the rules." Their efforts bore small results. Very small. The iPod nano--a term meaning one billionth--is smaller than a business card and about as thick as layer-cake frosting. Introduced at a much-touted...
  • Ask The Technologist

    -Larry Gist, Indianapolis It's true: broadband via power lines (BPL) is on the way. Several small towns already use power lines to offer high-speed Web access, and IBM, Google and Earthlink are exploring the technology. There are obstacles--radio enthusiasts swear BPL jams their signals--but broadband could begin hitting sockets as early as 2006.
  • Google To Microsoft: Watch Your Desktop

    If Bill Gates ever had reason to doubt that the brash young billionaires of Google were out to get him, the time for such uncertainty is now officially over. Last month's dramatically revised version of its program Google Desktop is a glove slap across the face of Microsoft's fabled chief software architect. Ostensibly Google's update to a previous tool that searched people's hard drives in addition to the usual lightning-quick survey of the entire World Wide Web, Google Desktop 2 turns out to be a not-so-stealthy attempt to hijack the desktop from Microsoft. And in a move that must be particularly galling to Gates, the program does it in a way that directly steals thunder from Microsoft's upcoming Windows update, Vista.Specifically, I'm talking about Google's feature called Sidebar, a stack of small windows that sit on the side of the screen and dynamically draw on Web and personal information to track things like weather, stock prices, your e-mail, your photos, recently opened...
  • ASK THE TECHNOLOGIST

    I have Norton firewall and anti-virus software. Am I safe from spyware and viruses?George Moody, Overland Park, Kans.You are smart to install security software--though even Symantec, the publisher, specifies that you must make sure it is up to date. (Its most recent version addresses spyware.) But even diligent use will only decrease the chances of an attack, much the way a locked car will frustrate some thieves but not the most determined ones. You must still be cautious about opening unknown applications and backing up your data.
  • WILL STICKS LICK BROADBAND FIX?

    When Bob Dylan sang "Time passes slowly up here in the mountains," he wasn't referring to the speed of Web pages loading on his computer. But this month I've had plenty of time to think about that Dylan lyric, as well as re-read the paper and stare at the hummingbird that flutters outside my window at my western Massachusetts retreat. This is dial-up country, and my browser refreshes in slo-mo, my mailbox fills up in dribbles and two coats of paint can dry before a PowerPoint file downloads. Though the Berkshires are only hours away from superwired citadels like New York and Boston, in terms of telecommunications this might as well be Nepal.The sticks are getting shafted when it comes to broadband. The Pew Internet and American Life Project study reports that rural users are only half as likely as urbanites to use high-speed Internet service, and that two thirds of rural dial-up users either don't know of their options to get the fast stuff or have checked it out and learned for...
  • MICROSOFT'S PLAN: VISTAS FOR EVERYONE

    This month people in the tech world are looking back 10 years to the Netscape IPO, which marked the arrival of the Web as an unstoppable phenomenon--and began inflating a tech bubble. Not many people are reminiscing about the other big August 1995 story: the splashy introduction of Windows 95. To the riffs of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," Bill Gates unrolled a dramatic operating-system update that promised a quantum leap in utility, simplicity and just plain good looks on the screen (kind of like the Macintosh). As well as its own Web browser to fend off those guys in Silicon Valley.Where are we 10 years later? A new company, Google, has a Brobdingnagian market cap. And Microsoft has finally released an early Beta version (for developers only) of its long-delayed new version of Windows. It promises a quantum leap in utility, simplicity and just plain good looks on the screen (kind of like the new Macintosh system, Tiger). As well as built-in search to fend off those guys in...
  • THE NEW CRYSTAL BALL: IT'S THE INTERNET

    If you were selling a product to Generation Y--the age group between 10 and 27, which has yet to come up with a melodious moniker--who would be your ideal spokesperson? At one point in marketing history, answering that question would have been a pricey process involving phone surveys, focus groups and hanging around schoolyards and student unions. Today there's a perfect shortcut: the Internet. Specifically, blogs and chat rooms, where the opinions, whims and heartthrobs of today's youth are freely aired. "We have the ability to listen to unsolicited opinions and comments," says Howard Kaushansky, CEO of Umbria Communications. "Listening to the stream of consciousness, we get an unbiased view of what people think." As a result, Umbria's team of Web surfers and analysts didn't have to make any phone calls or interrupt a single soccer game to come up with the guy you want selling your product to young males: Kobe Bryant.That's only one of a million juicy fruits that are now hanging...
  • PULLING THE PLUG ON LOCAL INTERNET

    Pete Sessions, a Texas member of the House, believes in states' rights. But he also thinks that there are situations so extreme that Congress must slap down state and local government initiatives. One such case: localities that offer citizens free or low-cost Internet service. Idealists may view extending high-speed Internet as a boon to education, an economic shot in the arm and a vital component in effective emergency services. Sessions (who once worked for telecom giant SBC) sees it as local-government meddling in the marketplace--"trying to pick winners and losers," he says--and thus justifies federal meddling to stop elected officials from giving their constituents a stake in the 21st century.The Sessions bill is only one shot in the battle over municipal wireless, or muni Wi-Fi. In hundreds of communities, public officials have concluded that the Internet is an essential service. They see that their residents are either offered prices that are too high or are not offered...
  • THE SUPREMES HIT THE PIRATE SHIPS

    There is something about the pomp and circumstance of a Supreme Court decision, especially a long-awaited one like last week's file-sharing case, that tempts one to view any conclusion of nine justices as a historic turning point. Though plenty of cases clear that bar, my guess is that MGM v. Grokster will not be among them. Not that the court didn't nail the basic issues--the case was all about dealing with technological innovation when it empowers illegal activities (in this case, copyright infringement), and the Robed Ones not only struck a balance but delivered an impressively clueful precis of how file-sharing services work on the Internet. In retrospect, though, the conclusion seems rather obvious: it's not OK to steal. (More specifically, it's not OK to build a business based on helping people to steal.) And in practice, it's not clear that the decision is going to make much difference in the struggle between the music and film industries and their Net-savvy customers.First,...
  • Grand Theft Identity

    BE CAREFUL, WE'VE BEEN TOLD, OR YOU MAY BECOME A FRAUD VICTIM. BUT NOW IT SEEMS THAT CORPORATIONS ARE FAILING TO PROTECT OUR SECRETS. HOW BAD IS THE PROBLEM, AND HOW CAN WE FIX IT?
  • AOL'S SOLUTION: A PORTAL IN A STORM

    Nine years ago I wrote a column about the future of the three great subscription online services--CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online. In the age of the Internet, I argued, their business model was doomed. People would not pay for content locked up in proprietary "walled gardens" when a wealth of similar information was available free on the Net. I called the trio "dead men walking." I got only two out of three; AOL kept growing. For years, whenever I saw Steve Case, he'd gleefully bring up my premature obituary.Clearly I underestimated Case's ability to overcome his company's challenges, and even convince a media giant that AOL could continue to defy commercial gravity. Now, of course, the Time Warner merger is viewed as a colossal disaster--and the bell is finally tolling for AOL's business model. Subscribers are fleeing like beachcombers after a shark warning--down to 22 million, from a high of 27 million. Barry Diller recently said he spurned an offer to buy AOL for $20...
  • LIFE AFTER NAPSTER

    Shawn Fanning, at 24, has already had a career's worth of fame as creator of Napster, the free peer-to-peer music-sharing service that changed the record industry, before it was litigated out of business. (Don't mistake that effort for the current music-subscription service that bought the Napster name.) But he thinks the best is yet to come. His new company, Snocap, is gathering an electronic registry of millions of songs, along with information on who owns the rights, and what, if anything, they want to be paid for a download. The registry and software that supports it will (he hopes) be licensed by peer-to-peer services that would instantly become legal, for-pay versions of Napster. So far, three of the four major labels and many indies have signed on. Fanning dropped by NEWSWEEK recently to discuss his second effort.LEVY: After the problems with Napster, why start a peer-to-peer related company like Snocap?FANNING: After Napster began to deteriorate, I became disillusioned and...
  • LOST MY SECRETS? PAY UP, BUDDY!

    If you had something extremely valuable to ship--a bundle of cash, a bag of diamonds or the plotline for "Mission Impossible 3"--would you just pack it in a cardboard box and hand it over to the United Parcel Service for delivery? My guess is that you would take extraordinary precautions. Hire an armored car for the valuables. Encode the story line with bulletproof encryption. So why did Citigroup use unencrypted computer tapes for a UPS run to transport personal financial information on nearly 4 million of its customers?Those tapes are now, um, misplaced--in the same zone where your missing eyeglasses and checked airport baggage disappear to. There's no reason to think that the private information on them will fall into the conniving hands of identity thieves, but it's certainly possible. The same goes for the confidential data lost by Time Warner on 600,000 employees and the hacker-compromised credit-card numbers of 1.4 million DSW Shoe Warehouse customers. Meanwhile, the secrets...
  • DIGITAL DJS ARE TURNING THE TABLES

    I can't imagine what my life in the early '70s would have been like without Michael Tearson. As the alpha disc jockey on WMMR, Philadelphia's hippest FM radio station, Tearson spun song sets that seemed to cosmically interact, providing transcendent moments throughout his midnight shift. My pals and I often wondered if he was sending secret messages by his song selection. Only recently, when I finally met Tearson, was the mystery resolved: he was sending us messages--ones of mood, not code--via Beatles, Bowie and Moby Grape.Personalities like Tearson have all but vanished from the airwaves. But in the era of the iPod and other digital players that store a huge amount of music, there's a rekindling of interest in the art of song sets. Apple's own solution is a double-barreled strategy of handpicked playlists for certain moods and random play for serendipitous discovery. But others are exploring more-sophisticated schemes to algorithmically clone the Michael Tearsons of yesteryear...
  • TELEVISION RELOADED

    Forty-four years ago, when Newton Minow famously described television as a vast wasteland, he might have hit the bull's-eye on the wasteland part. But he didn't know from vast. TV back then--a few black-and-white channels with a test pattern after midnight--was a sleepy three-light town where everybody hung out at the same dull places because there wasn't much else going on. As monochrome moved to color, and we got pay TV, more channels, remote controls, VCRs and cussin' on HBO, television sprawled much wider. But compared with what's coming, our 2005 experience is only half vast.Tomorrow's television? Now we're talking vast. Start with the screens--wide, flat, high-definition monsters that delineate tire treads on NASCAR rigs and zits on an anchorperson's chin--and move to the programming choices, which will expand from a lousy 200 or so channels to tens of thousands of 'em, if you figure in video-on-demand (VOD). It'll be a cosmic video jukebox where you can fire up old episodes...
  • THE EARTH IS READY FOR ITS CLOSE-UP

    Not long ago we were instructed to think of cyberspace--the digital realm that opens when you go online--as a territory of its own. But these days you don't hear much about cyberspace as a foreign country. Instead, as the Net becomes more and more geographically aware, we're using it to enhance our experiences in the realm of terra firma. The metaphor for this, as well as the potential center for such activity, is the literal mapping of our Earth, delivered piece by piece by piece to our screens--along with the location of the nearest pizzeria.Google was first among search leaders to integrate high-resolution space photos into its service. After acquiring a satellite-imagery company named Keyhole, it introduced Google Earth, allowing you to toggle between a traditional cartographic view and the actual picture from space. Google sightseers can zoom in close enough to see airplanes parked in the desert, the baseball diamond at Wrigley Field and cars in the Mall of America parking lot...
  • TELEVISION RELOADED

    Forty-four years ago, when Newton Minow famously described television as a vast wasteland, he might have hit the bull's-eye on the wasteland part. But he didn't know from vast. TV back then--a few black-and-white channels with a test pattern after midnight--was a sleepy three-light town where everybody hung out at the same dull places because there wasn't much else going on. As monochrome moved to color, and we got pay TV, more channels, remote controls, VCRs and cussin' on HBO, television sprawled much wider. But compared with what's coming, our 2005 experience is only half vast.Tomorrow's television? Now we're talking vast. Start with the screens--wide, flat, high-definition monsters that delineate tire treads on NASCAR rigs and zits on an anchorperson's chin--and move to the programming choices, which will expand from a lousy 200 or so channels to tens of thousands of 'em, if you figure in video-on-demand (VOD). It'll be a cosmic video jukebox where you can fire up old episodes...
  • THINKING OUTSIDE THE (MUSIC) BOX

    Technology moves at broadband speeds. but the music industry's transformation to the digital era has been trickling along at a pace suitable to that modem you tossed out when you got your high-speed connection. Apple's iTunes Music Store--which has sold more than 350 million downloads at a buck a pop--has been wildly successful. But because digitized music can be distributed, paid for and listened to in so many ways, there's room for other business models that could potentially grow the whole industry. Apple CEO Steve Jobs professes to be cautious about this issue--"We're not religious on this, but there's no evidence people want [other models]," he says--but others have been brainstorming different ways to move legal digital music forward. Now we're finally seeing some of the schemes come to market.For instance, Real Networks has just come out with Rhapsody 25, which adds two twists to its existing subscription service. The first is that instead of being able to stream unlimited...