Steven Levy

Stories by Steven Levy

  • 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 ...
  • THE ALPHA BLOGGERS

    A few months ago no one had heard of "podcasting," because it didn't exist. Last summer an MTV veejay turned technophile named Adam Curry wanted to do an Internet-based radio show, distributing it through his Weblog. (A Weblog, or blog, is a personal Web site where somebody self-publishes an electronic journal, often linking to other things on the Web that strike the author's fancy.) With the help of fellow bloggers, he created special software that allowed digital audio content to be distributed directly to an iPod digital music player. You could even "subscribe" to these audio feeds, automatically loading up your little gizmo with these "podcasts."Something as interesting as podcasting was bound to be embraced by the blogosphere, the interconnected tapestry of hundreds of thousands of Weblogs. In specific slices of the sphere, opinion can be shaped by a much smaller number. By dint of reputation, novelty and charm, certain "alpha bloggers" have built large and influential...
  • FOR SOFTIES, SEARCH IS THE NEW BLACK

    Bill Gates has a Google thing. When I asked him about the search competition last summer, he turned on the sarcasm. "We'll never be as cool as them. Every conference you go to, there they are dressed in black, and no one is cooler!" Clearly Gates's dander was up, not only because the Google upstarts were eating his lunch, but they were press darlings as well. Behind the rant was a taunting subtext: watch me. Bill, you see, had been busy figuring how to get his lunch back.The first fruits of Gates's response are now ripe enough to consume. The beta version of MSN Web Search debuted in November, and this week MSN Desktop Search comes online. Though neither threatens to topple Google's reign, both are credible products. Not bad for an 18-month crash course in an area that the company had previously neglected with the complacency only a monopolist can muster. "It wasn't clear to me that we could catch up in that time frame," says MSN head Yusuf Mehdi.I recently visited Microsoft's...
  • WHAT YOUR COLLEGE KID IS REALLY UP TO

    Aaron Swartz was nervous when I went to interview him. I know this not because he told me, but because he said so on his student blog a few days afterward. Swartz is one of millions of people who maintain an Internet-based Weblog that allows one to punch in daily experiences as easily as banging out diary entries with a word processor. Swartz says the blog is meant to help him remember his experiences during an important time for him--freshman year at Stanford. But it also opens up a window to the rest of us.Let me explain. I recently completed "I Am Charlotte Simmons," Tom Wolfe's 676-page novel of contemporary college life, based in part on the author's research tour of several campuses, including Stanford. Critics have nitpicked on some of Wolfe's obvious miscues (pampered student-athletes thumb-twitch on Play-Station 3, which doesn't exist yet). But the larger question is whether Wolfe's status-centered, sex-crazed, subintellectual fictional Dupont University actually bears...
  • FOUR MORE YEARS TO FINALLY GET IT RIGHT

    Almost a month after the presidential election, I'm still getting missives from people who insist that things don't smell right. They draw on a litany of irregularities that are well-circulated in the blogosphere, the Blue States and maybe even subterranean corners of the Red nation. Some are of the dead-canary-in-the-coal-mine variety, like the computer in Ohio that delivered Bush 4, 258 votes when only 638 humans actually cast ballots. Others are more sweeping, like the charges that e-voting peculiarities could have somehow lost Kerry 260,000 votes in Florida. Not all of these people charge fraud, but clearly many believe the worst. And if they go to the popular blackboxvoting.org site, a headline assures them it's ok to say the f-word.It would be easy to dismiss this bunch as a society of paranoids. Indeed, their complaints seem beyond the pale when key e-voting critics claim that despite some problems, there's no evidence that the outcome was affected. Anyway, at this point,...
  • THE ALPHA BLOGGERS

    A few months ago no one had heard of "podcasting" because it didn't exist. Last summer an MTV veejay turned technophile named Adam Curry wanted to do an Internet-based radio show, distributing it through his Weblog. (A Weblog, or blog, is a personal Web site where somebody self-publishes an electronic journal, often linking to other things on the Web that strike the author's fancy.) With the help of fellow bloggers, he created spe-cial software that allowed digital audio content to be distributed directly to an iPod digital music player. You could even "subscribe" to these audio feeds, automatically loading up your little gizmo with these "podcasts."It's the kind of neat little innovation that in past times might have stayed under the radar for quite a while before others caught on.But in these times, no cool idea goes unnoticed. Something as interesting as podcasting was bound to be embraced by the blogosphere, the interconnected tapestry of hundreds of thousands of Weblogs. But in...
  • WHY TOM HANKS IS LESS THAN HUMAN

    A few weeks ago, some of us at NEWSWEEK got an advance screening of "The Polar Express" with the best possible host--Bob Zemeckis, the director of the $165 million film based on the popular children's book. Before we saw the movie, Zemeckis showed us the creation process. Real actors (notably Tom Hanks, who plays five roles) were festooned with costumes and sensors so that all their motions, down to the slightest facial twitch, could be detected by special cameras, stored digitally and mapped to computer-drawn characters. Though "Polar Express" is clearly a computer-graphic (CG) animated film, Zemeckis resisted that description, insisting that his "performance capture" methodology makes it something more akin to a realistic movie. He clearly believed he'd cracked the code of humanizing the CG human, a long-discussed hurdle in the field.Lurking in the background of the discussion was "The Incredibles," the newest effort from Pixar, which hit the studios five days before "Polar's"...
  • THE PODS JUST KEEP ON COMING

    Steve Jobs is feeling rather vindicated these days. "The iPod is three years old," says the Apple CEO. "When we started this, nobody knew what it was, or they didn't believe it would be a big hit." But last week at San Jose's vintage California Theatre, Apple's CEO, apparently at full strength after cancer surgery last summer, was triumphantly unveiling the newest twists on his megahit digital music player--with the extra oomph of a performance by U2's singer Bono and guitarist The Edge. As the game Irish frontman belted out a tune from the band's upcoming CD, a verklempt Jobs punched a colleague on the leg and said, "We're going to remember this for the rest of our lives."Financial analysts will more likely remember the sales results that Jobs unveiled. Specifically, 2 million iPods sold between July and September. It was more than Apple had planned--which didn't stop Jobs from announcing two additions to the iPod collection.The first one handles your photos. While Jobs believes...
  • CAN MR. BILL CLEAN UP YOUR IN BOX?

    As much as three fourths of all mail sent on the Internet is spam--unwanted, often disgusting or fraudulent brickbats tossed in your in box. We waste hours deleting this stuff--or, if we have software to do the work for us, we worry about urgent missives mistakenly tossed into the garbage bin. But now comes a voice assuring us that not only spam but other infuriating digital maladies will be dramatically reduced. Who's saying that Viagra come-ons and Nigerian bank scammers will be rarer than white tigers? Bill Gates.Microsoft's honcho dropped by NEWSWEEK last week to report on the progress of a prediction he made last January--that in two years, spam would be chopped liver. Gates has always been a true believer in technology's ability to solve problems, even ones it has created. So maybe it's not surprising that he says that with Microsoft leading the way, spam will be conquered. "If the problem isn't solved, it's terrible for the users and it's terrible for the whole idea of...
  • ADDICTED TO THE START-UP LIFE

    Silicon Valley is buzzing again, as a new wave of start-ups exploit opportunities arising from the utter pervasiveness of the Internet. One of them is JotSpot, a company that's trying to transform the trend of "wikis" (Web pages that anyone can write to and edit) into a Web application tool for businesses. JotSpot's CEO, Joe Kraus, was a founder of Excite--a fabled search company during the boom. After two years of politicking for digital consumer rights, Kraus (with another Excite founder, Graham Spencer) is back in the ring, and in the crazy days before unveiling the company last month, Kraus sat down to describe what it's like to roll out a company in 2004.NEWSWEEK: So why are you doing another start-up?KRAUS: I was asking myself this question, especially in the last week and a half, because we're in the run-up and it's 14 or 15 hours a day, and you're going, "Why am I doing this again?" The kind of cold truth is: I'm addicted to it. There's something you get when a small group...
  • BILL GATES

    As much as three quarters of the electronic mail sent over the Internet consists of unwanted and certainly unloved spam--everything from offers to buy Vicodin to shocking porn to messages with viruses embedded in them. But one man thinks we've turned a corner in taming the spam beast, and since he goes by the name of Bill Gates, it's worth hearing his plan, which involves not only technology but law enforcement and cooperation among companies. Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect dropped by NEWSWEEK on a trip to New York to share the good news with Steven Levy:LEVY: How much do you feel that it's Microsoft's responsibility to lead in eliminating spam?GATES: Heavily. We're not the cause of the problem. We don't send spam. But if the problem isn't solved, it's terrible for our users, and therefore it's terrible for the whole idea of software empowerment, which is what we're all about. And so it's incumbent on us to do everything we can do by ourselves, but also to take...
  • USING FREE AIRWAVES FOR DIRTY TRICKS

    You might think it unlikely that a programming change from the relatively obscure Sinclair Broadcast Group would become a headline in its own right. But this was no ordinary announcement. Sinclair, which controls 62 TV stations in markets covering one fourth of the country, announced that it would pre-empt time this week from the various networks it carries in favor of "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," a film about antiwar activities by Sen. John Kerry. As the title implies, the program is anything but an unbiased portrait of the man whom viewers will consider at ballot boxes only days after the screening. In fact, the film's Web site boasts a "merger" between its sources and those who maligned Kerry in the widely discredited Swift Boat attacks.Democrats are livid, and not just because they might miss "Desperate Housewives." Twenty senators have protested, and the DNC is suing under election laws. But the spokesperson for Sinclair's controlling stockholders--CEO David Smith...
  • SEARCH: A GOOGLE OF ONE'S OWN

    Web-search giant Google last week released a beta version of a program that uses the company's ferretlike technology to let you search your own computer. As you'd expect, the program uses the familiar interface and is lightning fast. More surprising is that Google Desktop Search "behaves like a photographic memory of what's been on your computer," says Google's Marissa Mayer. That means that it captures not only your files but all the Web pages you visit and even instant-message sessions. (You can cull private stuff from the index if you wish.) And you can search simultaneously on your computer and the Web. It's free, but works only on Windows.
  • THE CREATOR: NOW HE'S PLAYING SONY'S GAME

    What happens when a maverick is brought in from the cold? At the age of 54, Ken Kutaragi is finding out. For years he has reveled in his role as Sony's precocious bad boy--a visionary who pitched spitballs at the company's rulers from his own unassailable perch at Sony Computer Entertainment, the wildly profitable house that his PlayStation built. That very success made him impossible to ignore, and CEO Nobuyuki Idei decided to integrate him more closely into the corporation. "I said to Ken, 'You are part of Sony and we should go in the same direction'," says Idei. Kutaragi joined Sony's executive board in 2003 and is now in charge of Sony's $9 billion consumer-electronics business.Though Idei says that Kutaragi is, like Sony Music star Michael Jackson, "a creator," he's also hardheaded when it comes to finishing what he starts. He was among the first to realize that powerful computer graphics could be the basis of a groundbreaking form of entertainment, but he also had a sense of...
  • SONY GETS PERSONAL

    For those whose thumbs don't feel at home unless pressed against an analog control--and those who make millions selling to that crowd--the Tokyo Game Show is paradise in pixels. For 160,000 software developers, hardware makers, retailers and just plain fans flocking to a convention center a few miles past Tokyo Disneyland, it's a sensory overload that makes you feel as if you've been pummeled by a Mortal Kombat warrior. Sound blares at rock-concert level, forcing people to communicate in shouts. Typhoon-fueled humidity permeates the halls like a sticky mist. Eyes go blurry in the throb of thousands of display screens. Dozens of rail-thin, weirdly clad models gently lure people toward more than a hundred company booths. Hordes of otaku (obsessed geeks) file in, dressed as their favorite videogame characters. But this year the otaku and everyone else shared a single mission: to get their hands on the PSP.That would be the Sony PlayStation Portable, destined to be the must-have item in...