Steven Levy

Stories by Steven Levy

  • 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...
  • FAREWELL, WEB 1.0! WE HARDLY KNEW YE.

    Are you ready for the new Web? It's getting ready for you. It turns out that bidding on eBay, gathering with Meetup and Googling on, um, Google are only the opening scenes in a play whose running time will top "Mahabharata." While we've been happily browsing, buying and blogging, the tech set has been forging clever new tools and implementing powerful standards that boost the value of information stored on and generated by the Net. Things may look the same as the old Web, but under the hood there's been some serious tinkering, and after years of hype among propeller-heads, some of the effects are finally arriving.That was the big takeaway last week at a conference in San Francisco called Web 2.0. The idea of the confab was to explore the implications (and, for a number of attending VCs, to ponder the investment opportunities) of these new layers of technology and the massive activity on the Web that makes them sing."Web 1.0 was making the Internet for people," said Amazon.com's Jeff...
  • NO NET? WE'D RATHER GO WITHOUT FOOD.

    Your tech-stock portfolio might still be aching from a three-year hangover, but when it comes to the Internet's effect on our lives, the binge is just getting underway. What's more, participation is no longer optional. That was the bottom line in two very different research studies released last month. Taken in tandem, they present a breathtaking picture of how quickly and indelibly the digital world has made an impact on our lives.The first report would have landed on the desk with a resounding thump, had it not arrived in a PDF digital file that weighed nothing. (Thanks, Internet!) It's the fourth in an annual series of voluminous, carefully documented studies from the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, attempting to track "the most important technological development of our generation."It's only been a decade since the first decent Web browser began transforming the Net from something cherished only by Star Trek fans with modems the size of shoeboxes to something your...
  • MEMO TO BLOGGERS: HEAL THYSELVES

    Things are quiet on the Where Is Raed blog these days. Quite a contrast to the weeks preceding the Iraqi war, when self-described "accidental journalist" Salam Pax (a pseudonym) became an international celebrity by providing a view of what it was like to live in a country awaiting invasion. He could do this on impulse because he had a Web log (also known as a blog). These are self-published online journals that are as easy to produce as a word-processing document, yet instantly available to the entire Internet. By providing an account unavailable in the traditional media, Pax became a symbol of the potential of blogs to broaden and enrich the national discussion.Pax has now ventured into the dead-tree world and written a book, but blogging itself has found its way into the media food chain, taking credit for uncovering a slew of media omissions and boo-boos, most recently the validity of the documents in CBS's bungled report on the Bush National Guard years. In particular, a core of...
  • FORECAST: SONG COSTS MAY FALL LIKE RAIN

    As residents of the Gulf Coast were reminded last week, there's no turning away nature. You can't pass a law that snuffs a hurricane at the border. You can't sue it. You've got to understand it, and make the right plans to deal with it. Technology generates its own form of nature, a set of conditions that enforce an artificial, yet equally unstoppable, reality. With the Internet, fast computers, cheap storage and high bandwidth, it's now just a fact that digital files--be they documents, images or Hoobastank tunes--can be sped through the ether with ease, a phenomenon no easier to halt than a storm surge.That's why it's so fascinating to watch the music industry's efforts to claim some high ground in its fight against piracy. For the longest time, the labels viewed digital music as something that could hurt them with hurricane force but made no efforts to adjust to this new reality, let alone exploit it. Finally, they were persuaded to license their works to online music sellers....
  • SURVIVING THE IPO FROM HELL

    Months ago, when the idea of Google's inevitable IPO could be discussed by its leaders only in hypothetical terms, cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were trying to explain to me (and perhaps themselves) why going public would not necessarily change the search-engine giant, or disrupt its mission. "I think there's always the opportunity to screw it up, be it private or public," said Brin. "Perhaps I'm naive."We all know what happened next. Google's offering closed last week, crossing the finish line with the burnt-out lungs of a marathon runner. The company started by eschewing the traditional clubby IPO format (hard-to-get, underpriced shares dealt out to insiders, quickly turned around for profit) in favor of a risky, but supposedly more democratic, auction process. Then the wizards of Mountain View, Calif., committed a series of bumbles that made it look as though they were taking corporate advice from Inspector Clouseau. Improper share distributions to employees. Confusing...
  • TECHNOLOGY: WINDOW WASHING

    Microsoft has finally released Service Pack 2, its long-delayed fix of many of the security problems of Windows XP. If you're among the 250 million or so users of that operating system, get it. "SP2 will make your computer more secure against hackers, viruses and malicious code, and will make it easier to stay secure and manage your security settings," says product manager Greg Sullivan. It does this by turning on the protective firewall by default, blocking pop-ups and thwarting applications that commandeer your machine without permission. The update is free at microsoft.com/protect.
  • Airplane Reading: 'Memorial Day'

    Vince Flynn didn't need a wakeup call on September 11, 2001. Since the mid-90s, the former Kraft corporation salesman (who was frustrated by a medical disqualification when he tried to join the Marines) has been banging out a series of increasingly hysterical thrillers focusing on the terrorist threat to America. By the time the real-life towers fell, the fictional realm of Flynn-dom had already seen radical Muslims take over the White House (supported, no less, by Saddam Hussein--could this be the source of the CIA's confusion?).Flynn's imagined attack, like several others, had been ultimately turned back by American's last, best line of defense: Mitch Rapp, a CIA operative who is as skilled in assassination skills as Dan Silva's Gabriel Allon, as cool a gamer as Clancy's Jack Ryan, and as superhuman in soldiering as Rambo himself. Even Flynn's made-up president, a well-meaning but insufficiently ruthless Democrat, relies on Rapp the way that the people in comic books depend on...
  • IPOD WORLD

    Steve Jobs noticed something earlier this year in New York City. "I was on Madison," says Apple's CEO, "and it was, like, on every block, there was someone with white headphones, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's starting to happen'." Jonathan Ive, the company's design guru, had a similar experience in London: "On the streets and coming out of the Tube, you'd see people fiddling with it." And Victor Katch, a 59-year-old professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan, saw it in Ann Arbor. "When you walk across campus, the ratio seems as high as two out of three people," he says.They're talking about the sudden ubiquity of the iPod, the cigarette-box-size digital music player (and its colorful credit-card-size little sister, the Mini) that's smacked right into the sweet spot where a consumer product becomes something much, much more: an icon, a pet, a status indicator and an indispensable part of one's life. To 3 million-plus owners, iPods give not only constant access to their...
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    iPod Nation

    In just three years, Apple's adorable mini music player has gone from gizmo to life-changing cultural icon
  • THE NEW IPOD

    Veteran Podsters understand that at least once a year Apple performs a feat that at once infuses them with dread and delight: an iPod upgrade. The delight comes from a new look and new capabilities. The dread comes from the realization that you're a step behind the cutting edge and must consider whether to buy your way back on it.And here it goes again. The considerably tweaked fourth-generation iPod will roll out this week, and NEWSWEEK got an advance peek. It looks a bit different, operates more efficiently, has a few more features and costs less. Here are the highlights.The click wheel. The iPod keeps getting slimmer and more streamlined. While the initial version had a relatively boxy feel, subsequent versions have been curvier and smaller. This one is about a millimeter thinner and, more significantly, eliminates the control buttons that sat under the display screen. Instead, it uses a "click wheel," where the controls are placed on the compass points of the circular touchpad...
  • MEET THE EYE CAM

    Our precious peepers are valued primarily for one crucial function: letting us see. But eyes can also be a source of information to those observing them, mostly by giving intuitive clues to emotions or intentions. And now two computer scientists from Columbia University have come up with a way to make use of a hitherto unexploited property of eyes: their ability to mirror the world around them.Specifically, postdoc researcher Ko Nishino and Prof. Shree Nayar, codirector of the Columbia Vision and Graphics Center, have devised a system to capture and analyze the evanescent pictures displayed on our own little ocular movie screens. Their "corneal imaging system" seems at first rather prosaic: basically it involves using a high-resolution digital camera to snap a close-up of a face. The real action takes place when the image is downloaded to the computer: sophisticated software isolates the circular area around the iris called the limbus, where a film of tear fluid over the cornea...
  • THE TROUBLE WITH E-BALLOTS

    It's now official: Walden O'Dell is no longer raising funds for George W. Bush. Why should you care? That was Walden O'Dell's attitude last year, when he promised, in his role as rainmaker for Ohio's presidential re-election campaign, to deliver the state to the incumbent. To his surprise, he learned that lots of people did indeed care--once they realized that his day job was running Diebold, a company that makes electronic-voting devices used by millions of voters. So it was prudent for Diebold to adopt a new policy that banned its executives from outside political work, adopted months ago but formally announced just recently.Unfortunately, Diebold hasn't conceded its bigger problem--that the current generation of computer-voting devices, the ones that many of us will use this November, are flawed by their inability to verify that the voter's choices are actually the ones that count in the final tallies.In a visit last week to NEWSWEEK, O'Dell, whose company is under increasing...
  • Airplane Reading: Intrigue at 35,000 Feet

    What do you read on the airplane? For many of us, it's a well-paced, deftly plotted so-called thriller, ideally situated on the banks of genre fiction with one toe in the pond of literature. Our demands are few but rigid: a compelling protagonist (typically genial and witty, though probably a bit more comfortable with bashing people's heads in than the folks with whom we actually socialize), a plotline that doesn't stray too far from reality (though details of things like armaments and police procedure should be straight out of the manual) and some unexpected twists and turns to keep the pages moving. It also helps immensely if the author can handle the English language as well as his characters wield Walther pistols.That's what makes my plane rides tolerable, but it's amazing how many books try to fulfill these criteria and fail miserably. Picking among the hundreds of tomes in the Mystery section in the Barnes & Noble is an odds-against crapshoot. Most of the brightly colored...
  • A FUTURE WITH NOWHERE TO HIDE?

    We're all too familiar with the concept of technology as a double-edged sword, and wireless is no exception. In fact, the back edge of this rapier is sharp enough to draw blood. Yes, the idea of shedding wires and cables is exhilarating: we can go anywhere and still maintain intimate contact with our work, our loved ones and our real-time sports scores. But the same persistent connectedness may well lead us toward a future in which our cell phones tag and track us like FedEx packages, sometimes when we're not aware.To see how this might work, check out Worktrack, a product from the Mountain View, California, "mobile services" company Aligo. The system is sold to employers who want to automate and verify digital time logs on their workers in the field. The first customers are in the heating and air-conditioning business. Workers have GPS-equipped cell phones that pinpoint their locations to computers in the back office. Their peregrinations can be checked against the "Geo Fence"...
  • CUTTING LOOSE

    In the '90s, people went bananas about wireless. Electronic communications once thought bound permanently to the world of cables and hard-wired connections suddenly were sprung free, and the possibilities seemed endless. Entrenched monopolies would fall, and a new uncabled era would usher in a level of intimate contact that would not only transform business but change human behavior. Such was the view by the end of that groundbreaking decade--the 1890s.To be sure, the sepia-toned hype of those days wasn't all hot air. Marconi's "magic box" and its contemporaneous inventions kicked off an era of profound changes, not the least of which was the advent of broadcasting. So it does seem strange that a century later, the buzz once more is about how wireless will change everything. And once again, the commotion is justified. Changes are afoot that are arguably as earth shattering as the world's first wireless transformation.Certainly a huge part of this revolution comes from untethering...
  • Something in the Air

    HERE'S WHAT WE'RE LEARNING WITH OUR CELL PHONES, SENSORS AND WI-FI: LOSING THE WIRES IS ONLY THE BEGINNING. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IS UNPREDICTABLE, EMPOWERING AND SOMETIMES A BIT UNNERVING.