Steven Levy

Stories by Steven Levy

  • HUFFINGTON'S POST: NOT YET TOAST

    Almost from the moment Arianna Huffington's blog (huffingtonpost.com) went live last week, it became the epicenter of digital snarkiness. Seemingly everyone with access to the Web--and more than a few spitballers from mainstream media--took a shot at the socialite pundit's site, a compendium of the views, opinions and random remarks of 350 actors, pundits, writers and politicos, ranging from genuine celebrities (Gwyneth Paltrow, Larry David, Walter Cronkite) to the niche-famous (wonky speechwriters, people cranking out television scripts for "Alias," Jon Corzine). Bloggers complained about its cluenessness, lack of focus and self-aggrandizement. One writer called it "the box-office equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven's Gate rolled into one." Someone even created an anti-Arianna blog, with the Web address huffington.isfullofcrap.com.None of this seems to bother the senatorial spouse turned author turned entrepreneur. "Give us a few months to evaluate what it will become," she says...
  • 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...
  • TECHNOLOGY: THIS TIGER HAS CLAWS

    Mac users, not a shy bunch to begin with, will be roaring over Tiger, the $129 operating-system upgrade Apple rolled out last week. The showstopper is Spotlight, a built-in hard-drive search. Just type in a word and Spotlight locates its appearance in documents, PDF files, photo and music labels, even e-mails. (Microsoft Entourage support is yet to come; in the meantime, export your messages to Apple's beefed-up Mail app.) Also new is Dashboard, a set of applications that perform little tasks or keep watch on stuff like stocks or flights. There's a dazzling way to run full-screen high-res video conferences. The upgraded Safari browser adds a privacy function (so you can surf without leaving a wake). Our installation went flawlessly, and we've already discovered cool new features--like photo-slide shows within e-mail. And we haven't even begun with the parental controls or the new program that automates your complicated desktop tasks.
  • TIGER'S OUT THIS WEEK. NO BULL.

    It's Steve Jobs's plan to make this the Week of the Tiger. But Bill Gates and his minions at Microsoft are crying bull--specifically, a Longhorn steer. Despite the zoological bent, this dust-up is not about animals, but operating systems; Apple and Microsoft just happen to have named each of their major system upgrades after beasts of the realm. This Monday, Bill shows off the future of Windows, a.k.a. Longhorn, at a developers' conference. The oohs and aahs may be tempered by the fact that the hundreds of millions of Windows users won't get their hands on it until holiday season, 2006. (Unless it's even later.) On Friday, Jobs proudly presents the latest Macintosh OS X upgrade, named after that big striped cat that he always seems to have by the tail. When can the 25 million Mac users get their hands on Tiger? This year. This month. That day. Growwwl.That's a big point for Apple in the latest matchup in high tech's equivalent to the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Both...
  • LIVING BY GOOGLE RULES

    A couple of weeks ago, a prominent dot-com warrior gave me a hot tip about Google: the next big move of the search phenom would be an assault on eBay. Think about it. Millions visit the Google site daily; why not let them search for items offered by sellers? The company already knows auctions, since it uses a bidding process for ads that accompany its search results. And eBay might be vulnerable, since it recently angered its sellers by raising commissions. The move would be straight out of the "Art of War" playbook apparently distributed by venture capitalists to all ambitious entrepreneurs.But when I floated this theory to Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, the valley veteran who joined the company in 2001, he just laughed. "It's a perfectly reasonable question, but it doesn't compute here," he says. "If I said at a meeting, 'Are we going to enter eBay's space?' everyone would look at me and say, 'Why? They do a fine job.' The genius of Google is that we find new ways to solve problems...
  • DIE, SOFTWARE!

    The not-exactly-thrilling world of enterprise software, which manages the workings of corporations and monitors their client relationships, paradoxically generates larger-than-life executives in its own ranks. Think Larry Ellison, the billionaire CEO of Oracle. It's no accident that Marc Benioff worked for Ellison for 13 years before founding San Francisco-based Salesforce.com in 1999. That new company was based on the premise that business software--and maybe all software--was changing from a product to a service. Leaving Oracle was a risk for Benioff, but risk-taking is in keeping with his outsize, gregarious personality, which has gotten him in hot water--like when he spoke too much about his company's ultimately successful IPO before the offering last year. Now that the quiet period is long over, the 40-year-old can dish.NEWSWEEK: What do you mean when you say software is dead?BENIOFF: The concept that you buy the software, that you own it, that you manage it has really come to...
  • IN THE NEW GAME OF TAG, ALL OF US ARE IT

    Melvil Dewey had it easy. In 1876, when he created his famous system of ordering information, the Dewey Decimal Classification System, there weren't Web sites, video clips or blogs. Today's digital world--where millions of items are generated on an hourly basis, and even fantastic search engines can't find all the good stuff--is tougher to organize than a herd of Democrats. But Internet pundits now claim a solution: let the people do the categorizing. Using a practice called tagging, we can collectively label everything from great literature to pictures of your puppy. Bye-bye, Dewey. Hello, do-it-yourself.As the name implies, tagging something means putting a virtual label on it. (Software lets you do this by simply typing a word; from then on, it's linked to the content.) What the tag says is totally up to you. The important thing is that later you--and others--can find things simply by the tag name. Think of tagging as the opposite of search. By leaving linguistic bread crumbs...
  • LIVING BY GOOGLE RULES

    A couple of weeks ago, a prominent dot-com warrior gave me a hot tip about Google: the next big move of the search phenom would be an assault on eBay. Think about it. Millions visit the Google site daily; why not let them search for items offered by sellers? The company already knows auctions, since it uses a bidding process for ads that accompany its search results. And eBay might be vulnerable, since it recently angered its sellers by raising commissions. The move would be straight out of the "Art of War" playbook apparently distributed by venture capitalists to all ambitious entrepreneurs.But when I floated this theory to Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, the Valley veteran who joined the company in 2001, he just laughed. "It's a perfectly reasonable question, but it doesn't compute here," he says. "If I said at a meeting, 'Are we going to enter eBay's space?' everyone would look at me and say, 'Why? They do a fine job.' The genius of Google is that we find new ways to solve problems...
  • A VERY DANGEROUS SUPREMES RERUN

    According to Cary Sherman and Dan Glickman, the last thing that the record labels (for whom Sherman lobbies) and movie studios (for whom Glickman lobbies) want is to stifle the development of awesome new gadgets that make life worth living in couch-potato land. They are taking their case--MGM v. Grokster--to the U.S. Supreme Court this week because those darned file-sharing services like Grokster, Kazaa and Morpheus make it easy for millions of people to steal movies and songs over the Internet. But the outcome may very well affect what tools all of us might one day use to hypercharge our entertainment. Specifically, do we want to enjoy unfettered the fruits of the digital revolution--or will Hollywood, despite its protestations, put on the brakes?The case is centered around the question of whether those theft-enabling file-sharing services are legal. The lower courts have ruled that they are. This was in keeping with the 1984 Sony Betamax case, when the Supremes gave their blessing...
  • LIFE ISN'T JUST AS YOU WANT IT? REMIX IT!

    The weirdness bar was set pretty high at last week's Emerging Technology Conference (ETech) in San Diego. Even so, a lot of the techie presenters cleared it with room to spare. These certainly included the University of California, San Diego, professor who spoke of unleashing "feral robotic dogs" on contaminated landfill sites. Ditto for the giggling British tinkerer who set up a complex system of wires, sensors and potentiometers in order to tell time by measuring the deterioration of a prawn-and-mayonnaise sandwich.All of this delighted the audience of 750, heavily tilted toward geekitude. But the point of the conference was not to single out strangeness, but argue that such acts were only extreme examples of an increasingly commonplace process: people using cheap and accessible digital tools to "remix" the world around them. Just as music producers sometimes go back to the original components of a tune--boosting some instruments, sweetening the tone and maybe adding a voiceover-...
  • A GOOD KNIGHT FOR SONY

    Howard stringer was about to embark on a round of Oscar weekend partygoing when he got the call from Japan: Sony's chairman and CEO Nobuyuki Idei was stepping down and vice chairman Stringer, who is based in New York, was the pick as his successor. After checking with his wife, who lives with his two children in England, Stringer accepted. The 63-year-old Welsh-born former head of CBS News (who was knighted in 2000) is now the first gaijin to head the electronics flagship of the Japanese economy--albeit a troubled company that has lost 75 percent of its stock price during the last five years. Stringer, who doesn't speak Japanese, faces the challenge of directing a firm with assets in film and music, a mighty game division and a woefully underperforming electronics division. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Steven Levy about his plans to restore the luster to one of the world's greatest brands.LEVY: Why did Mr. Idei choose you as the first foreigner to lead Sony?STRINGER: I think he liked...
  • A GOOGLE TO GO

    What with Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, Hotels.com and every airline, hotel chain and car-rental place hosting its own site, you would think that the last thing the world needs is another travel destination on the Web. Nonetheless, veterans of several of the aforementioned online travel giants have launched yet another start-up, Kayak.com, claiming that it would be more of a travel search engine than a direct competitor to the others. The site has been in beta since last fall and offers a few things not seen on other sites, like complete access to discount airlines like JetBlue and Southwest, and a nice way to refine results without having to go back to the beginning of the search. CEO Steve Hafner, who got out of Orbitz to paddle Kayak's course, recently tried to explain what needs his new venture could serve.LEVY: Why do we need another travel site? There are millions of them already.HAFNER: That's precisely why you need another one. There are so many sites out there,...
  • BLOGGING BEYOND THE MEN'S CLUB

    At a recent Harvard conference on bloggers and the media, the most pungent statement came from cyberspace. Rebecca MacKinnon, writing about the conference as it happened, got a response on the "comments" space of her blog from someone concerned that if the voices of bloggers overwhelm those of traditional media, "we will throw out some of the best... journalism of the 21st century." The comment was from Keith Jenkins, an African-American blogger who is also an editor at The Washington Post Magazine [a sister publication of NEWSWEEK]. "It has taken 'mainstream media' a very long time to get to [the] point of inclusion," Jenkins wrote. "My fear is that the overwhelmingly white and male American blogosphere... will return us to a day where the dialogue about issues was a predominantly white-only one."After the comment was posted, a couple of the women at the conference--bloggers MacKinnon and Halley Suitt--looked around and saw that there weren't many other women in attendance. Nor...
  • HISTORY IS GOING, GOING, GONE

    Almost 30 years ago I came to possess a little piece of computer history. At the time, it seemed to me a fairly straightforward handwritten letter acknowledging my request to terminate an apartment lease, with instructions on how I could recover my security deposit. What I did not know then was that my landlord, a fellow with the unforgettable name of J. Presper Eckert, was a pioneer of the digital era, a co-inventor of one of the first operational electronic computers.The idea that this note might qualify as a historical artifact dawned on me a couple of weeks ago as I examined the 254 lots in the "History of Cyberspace" collection auctioned at Christie's on Feb. 23. The earliest items were from the brilliant minds of the pre-computer age like Charles Babbage, the 19th-century visionary who designed a programmable machine called "the Difference Engine." But the meat of the collection consisted of documents from the vacuum-tube cowboys who made the early giant computers, especially...
  • TECHNOLOGY: PRICE DIP FOR PODS

    iPods may be the gold standard in portable digital music, but Apple has consistently cut prices to make sure that it won't take too much gold to buy one. To the frustration of competitors and the delight of the cost-conscious, CEO Steve Jobs did it again last week. Now you can buy an iPod mini (holding 1,000 songs) for $199--a fact that won't be lost on millions of kids bugging parents for a unit. For the previous price, $249, there's a roomier version that stores 1,500 songs. Better yet, these models have twice the battery life, rocking for 18 hours between charges.If you were lusting after the crisp color screen of an iPod photo, you're also in luck: the top-of-the-line 60-gigabyte model now costs $449, a nice discount from its previous $599. But the best deal of all might be the new, slimmer $349 iPod photo, holding up to 7,500 songs. Now the color screen makes sense even for those who don't do photos. And if you do, a new $29 doodad lets you download snaps directly from your...
  • The Zen of Fighting iPod

    Most customers of creative Technologies don't even know it. They're the millions who have the Sound Blaster circuit boards in their PCs that process the audio boomed through the speakers. The Singapore-based company has thrown its energies into digital music players, a field it entered well before Apple's introduction of the market leader, the iPod. Nonetheless, founder and CEO Sim Wong Hoo thinks his own products--the flash-based MuVo as well as the direct iPod competitor, the Zen Micro--can hold their own with Steve Jobs. We phoned the outspoken 49-year-old Sim, whose Zen playlist is heavy on Chinese and New Age music, at his Singapore headquarters. ...
  • MA BELL'S KIDS WILL LIVE ON THE NET

    Have telephone companies gone off the hook? In the last few weeks, AT&T has been gobbled by SBC and MCI snapped up by Verizon. It's like some toddler upchucked his alphabet soup. Part of this ferment comes from the telco struggle to deal with new technologies, but the most disruptive change of all--voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), pronounced by geeks as "v-oy-p"--is only beginning to make its mark. "Telephone service used to be based on a huge infrastructure of high-priced equipment," says Peter Sisson, a former Bell Labs researcher turned entrepreneur. "And now it's just software."Think about that. All those costly switching stations and all those miles of wire and fiber optic trumped by the ability to plug your telephone into the Internet, where voice is as easily transmitted as e-mail, iTunes songs and pictures of Teri Hatcher. That's why a company called Vonage can sell 400,000 subscribers unlimited long distance service for $25 a month, simply by letting them plug their...
  • THE ZEN OF FIGHTING IPOD

    Most customers of creative Technologies don't even know it. They're the millions who have the Sound Blaster circuit boards in their PCs that process the audio boomed through the speakers. The Singapore-based company has thrown its energies into digital music players, a field it entered well before Apple's introduction of the market leader, the iPod. Nonetheless, founder and CEO Sim Wong Hoo thinks his own products--the flash-based MuVo as well as the direct iPod competitor, the Zen Micro--can hold their own with Steve Jobs. We phoned the outspoken 49-year-old Sim, whose Zen playlist is heavy on Chinese and New Age music, at his Singapore headquarters.LEVY: You sold more than 2 million music players in the last quarter of 2004. Was that expected?SIM: We were planning for more, in fact, but because the ramp-up was so fast, it became more a logistical problem than a selling problem. So in the December quarter we had no problems selling everything that we could ship out.Why do you think...
  • STEAMROLLERED BY THE DELL MACHINE

    Of all the cards dealt to Carly Fiorina, the now departed HP diva, there was one that just couldn't be played. Dell. She fought like a tiger to merge her company with Compaq, hoping that two of the more innovative-minded computer makers might bring on some agita for Michael Dell and his CEO Kevin Rollins. But last spring at an industry confab, Rollins was boasting that Dell reaps more than 100 percent of the profits in the entire industry. Sounds weird, but think of it this way: Dell is making big money while everybody else combined is operating at a loss. Sorry, Carly.In Dell's view, only one big player has a right to exist in the business of selling Windows-based PCs--the firm Michael Dell founded in his college dorm room. Profitless rivals should take up something with a better chance of putting change in their pockets. In fact, IBM, once the gold standard in PCs, recently did just that, selling its laptop business to a Chinese company called Lenovo. And now that Carly has left...
  • HOW TO HOOK THE ELUSIVE PHISHER

    Ann Chapman thought it was strange that MSN, Microsoft's online service, was asking her to go to a Web site and re-enter her credit-card number. So she mentioned it to her son-in-law. He took the e-mail to his employer: Microsoft. Thus began an epic hunt to find a phisher.Phishing is a recent cybercrime twist. A phisher sends out huge amounts of spam in the form of e-mail purporting to be from a company like Citicorp, PayPal or MSN. The mail says there's something wrong with your account and links to an authentic-looking Web site so you can fix it. But the site is a fake, and when you enter personal information, the phisher can use it to buy goods or swipe your identity. An estimated 75 million to 150 million phishing e-mails go out every day, with losses as high as more than $1 billion a year, says Dave Jevans of the tech industry's Anti-Phishing Working Group."Because of the volume and complexity of these investigations, law enforcement can be hesitant to take the step," says...
  • A STEP FORWARD IN THE VOTING WARS

    The polling places in Iraq are front-and-center this week, but the jagged scars of our own election are still far from healed. Part of the problem is that, no matter what the count, many people do not trust results from electronic voting machines. Democracy suffers when there's reason to doubt that the rightful winner is the one who gets sworn into office.So it's nice to be the first to report a development that might help things out. A renowned cryptographer with a keen interest in voting, David Chaum has persuaded a team of election officials, computer scientists, interest-group advocates and voting-equipment makers to join in a coalition called Voting Systems Performance Rating (VSPR). The goal is to generate a set of voting-system standards that everyone can agree on--sort of a Consumer Reports for election machines. There would be ratings in areas like security, privacy, reliability and accessibility to the elderly and the disabled. After the group does its work, states and...
  • YELLOW PAGES WITH EYES ON THE PRIZE

    Amazon.com's search company A9 uses Google to comb the Web, but keeps innovating in other areas. The latest is the A9.com Yellow Pages. The company sent out specially equipped trucks with cameras and GPS receivers to take thousands of street-level pictures in 10 cities. As a result, when you type in a ZIP code and the word "pizza," you not only get the nearby parlors but pictures of their storefronts. And using "block view" you can virtually walk down the street to see what else is around. Then, with a single mouseclick, you can place an Internet phone call to order your pie. Pepperoni, please! -S.L.
  • DOWNLOAD: THE KIDS STAY IN THE PICTURE

    In the flurry of activity around Google last summer (something about an IPO), you might have missed the search firm's acquisition of a company called Picasa, whose eponymous software was the closest thing Windows users had to the slick photo-organization tool Apple-oids had in iPhoto. Last week Google rolled out a beefed-up version called Picasa 2.Strengths include humongous space (it holds a quarter-million digital snapshots, enough to bore battalions of your friends) and oodles of editing features. You can fix underexposed or overlit shots with a one-click I'M FEELING LUCKY button or add special effects, including one that gives your photos an Ansel Adams feel. Best of all: it's free, at picasa.com.
  • A FOX IN BILL'S HENHOUSE

    Microsoft's nightmare--well, one of them--is tucked away in the back of a Mountain View, Calif., office park. Decorated in "Mad Max" style (exposed wires, weird equipment lying around and a huge model of a suspension bridge built from soda cans on which a plastic Godzilla rages), the Mozilla Foundation employs only a dozen or so programmers. But they are the tip of an iceberg of thousands of geeks who, via the participatory open-source model, donate their time and brainpower to creating software that presents an alternative to the mighty empire in Redmond. Notably, a Web browser called Firefox.In the last few months a growing number of Just Plain Users have been abandoning Internet Explorer, the browser Microsoft built to go with its operating system, for Firefox. Though Explorer is still by far the champion, its 90-plus percent market share is shrinking a bit every month.For Bill Gates, the idea of a movement to some other browser is a disruption to the natural order of things. ...
  • TECHNOLOGY: APPLE DOES SOME DOWNSIZING

    What makes an iPod an iPod? That's the question evoked by Apple's latest member of its wildly popular digital-music-player family. To compete in the low-cost "flash memory" arena (using a memory chip on the device as opposed to a larger-capacity hard drive), Apple did away with such well-known features as the "click wheel" and the display screen--in fact, the sleek, white iPod Shuffle, which is barely the size of a pack of gum, has but two ways to play the 120 or 240 songs it carries. Either you play them in order or "shuffle" them to play back randomly (either way, you can't see the title of the tune). "When you don't have much music it's a wonderful way to listen," says Apple CEO Steve Jobs.So what's an iPod, then? "It's just a great digital music player," says Jobs. As well as something that ties into the popular iPod ecosystem of the iTunes software and online music store.The iPod Shuffle sells for $99 (120-song version) or $149 (240 songs). It's got a rechargeable battery (12...
  • GETTING THE WHOLE WORLD IN YOUR HAND

    What struck me about last week's Consumer Electronics Show--the huge annual gadget bacchanalia convening, naturally, in Las Vegas--is the buzzword people don't say anymore. Only a few years ago people breathlessly uttered "convergence" as sort of a catchall mantra. It embodied the elusive idea that different media, including every variety of sound, image and data, could be served up together and consumed like a giant main-course salad, with fantastic benefits in the process. Now you rarely hear it, because the concept is so here and now that it would be like commenting on air.Though the miles of aisles at the humongous show were filled with everything from cars pimped with half the inventory of a Circuit City to plasma television screens so wide you couldn't squeeze them into a McMansion, to me, the flagships of this year's event were handheld devices that have become this century's version of Swiss Army knives.Someone would hand you a cigarette-box-size chunk of plastic with a...
  • LOOKING FOR SOMETHING?

    When people encounter Craig Newmark they can't believe they're meeting the Craig. It seems that the founder of craigslist.org--the wildly popular Internet site that's becoming the world's bulletin board--has reached the single-name status of Arnold, Cher and Madonna. The fame is surprising to the plump, bald, 52-year-old former computer programmer. "I'm just keeping it very simple," says Newmark.Simple is almost a religion at craigslist. Begun in 1995 as an e-mailed dispatch of San Francisco job leads and apartment vacancies, the list now covers more than 75 cities, from Anchorage to Zurich. Six million people every month use the free service to search for jobs, junk, tickets, apartments, roommates, mates and temporary intimates--often requested with shocking specificity.What will undoubtedly prove not simple for Newmark and his CEO Jim Buckmaster, is managing the list's meteoric growth while maintaining what Craig refers to as "nerd values." Essentially, that means being smart and...
  • GOOGLE'S TWO REVOLUTIONS

    If it weren't for the war, and the terrorism and the election, 2004 might well be remembered as the Year of Search. Maybe it will anyway. If we get through these rocky times with civilization's underpinnings intact, our descendants, swimming in total information, might be required to memorize the date of last August's Google IPO as a cultural milestone. Except that in the post-Google era, memorization will be obsolete, because even the most obscure fact will be instantly retrievable.Google's IPO is important not because of the billions of bucks involved, but as a symbol of the impact of the two revolutions its founders fomented. Most of us are already making use of the first one, involving the life-changing feedback that comes from a query in the Google search field (or those of its increasingly competitive rivals). This is just an appetizer of the feast to come as search systems attempt to encompass every bit of data generated by humanity. When Amazon.com began its groundbreaking ...