Stories by Steven Levy

  • MAKING THE ULTIMATE MAP

    There it is, that good old pale blue dot in all its earthly glory, right there on your computer screen. It's a familiar sight, even from a sky-high perspective experienced only by astronauts and angels. But hold on. By mousing around and clicking, you swoop like Superman, down, down, down, to a location on terra firma. Coastlines and rivers come into view, then cities, houses and even cars. And then, with another mouseclick, you can see the roads labeled, highlight the high-crime areas and locate the nearest Chinese restaurant. (The photography is provided by a combination of satellite images and pictures from aircraft flyovers.) If an alien flying-saucer jockey ever had an urge for chicken in black-bean sauce, this software would come in handy.This particular Web-based program is called Keyhole and costs under $100. (Spy agencies used to spend millions for this, and they didn't even get the restaurant overlay!) But it's just one impressive product of many in an area marked by...
  • Software: Need An Office?

    If you're a Macintosh owner, you're probably using Microsoft Office for everyday apps. Should you spend $239 to upgrade to the newly released Office 2004 for Mac? There's a spiffed up and more efficient interface for the organizer Entourage, along with a nifty feature that tracks all the files, e-mails and Web pages associated with a given project. (But searching through e-mail is still clumsy and slow--hasn't Microsoft figured out why people love Google?) PowerPoint ninjas will drool over the "presentation view" that enhances control of slide shows. And inveterate archivists will appreciate the new Notebook function in Word. If this turns you on, consider the upgrade, but casual, penny-pinching users can sit tight. Student bonus: the full-featured education version at $149 is a bargain.
  • The Google Supercomputer

    How many computers does Google have? The answer may interest you if you're considering a bid in the upcoming Dutch auction for shares in the firm's recently announced IPO. One way to view to the processing power of the search giant is to count the powerful servers that store, scan and analyze all the information it scrapes from the World Wide Web. Since Google's own estimate is not really helpful (for years now it's been saying the number is "more than 10,000"), obsessed observers have filled the backs of many envelopes to make their own estimates. A consensus now believes that Google has about 100,000 servers, an awesome number. Meanwhile, other Google watchers take a different approach to the question and have confidently produced a more precise answer: one.As Rich Skrenta, CEO of news aggregator Topix.net, wrote in a widely discussed blog posting last month: "Google is a company that has built a single, very large custom computer." He's among those who believe that Google's...
  • Still Standing, Pat

    No surprise that Pat Mcgovern is big on brains. He's CEO of IDG, a privately held business launched back in 1964 that rakes in $2.4 billion a year from selling head food: more than 300 computer magazines (Computer World and Linux World, for example), over 170 tech conferences and the IDC market-research firm. McGovern, 66, also gushes about a recent conclave held at the $350 million research institute he and his wife funded at MIT, where scientists discussed brain scans of Buddhist monks and which the Dalai Lama himself attended. Steven Levy (once a columnist for IDG's MacWorld), caught up with the upbeat billionaire in New York:NEWSWEEK: Is the tech business improving?MCGOVERN: We've been through three bubbles and collapses in the 40 years that we've been publishing. You go through a couple of years where there's depressed spending, and then you start to have growth. What's deceiving right now is that we're having about 12 percent growth in the company, but only 2 percent is coming...
  • A Very Public Offering

    Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one." With those words, one of the chattiest, most idealistic and economically momentous "S-1" forms ever--the filing that announces a public stock offering--hit Wall Street with a wallop. The century's most anticipated IPO was on, and the document, revealing the search giant's financial details, business strategy and risk factors instantly eclipsed Bob Woodward's Iraq book as the most-talked-about tome in the nation. Thousands downloaded it from the SEC's Web site, poring through hundreds of pages with a single question on their minds, a query not answerable by the otherwise perspicacious Google search engine: should I get in on this?In a period where many investors are still nursing portfolios wounded in the dot-com bust four years ago, that's more than a stock pick: it's a dilemma worthy of Kierkegaard. So much attention, in fact, will be spent contemplating a bid in the Internet auction that will determine who gets...
  • Grass-Roots Guide To Everything

    Here's an encyclopedia that evokes a variation on the famous Groucho line: would you get your information from a reference work that accepts you as an author? Wikipedia is a huge online compendium (250,000 entries in English, and growing furiously) written and amended by anyone who wants to participate. Amazingly, the quality of information, says cofounder Jimmy Wales, "puts us head to head" with rivals like Britannica and Expedia. Much in the same way that the collective "open source" movement has created a grass-roots, pro bono authorship of high-quality free software, Wikipedia.com relies on volunteer contributors to share their knowledge for what Wales hopes will be "the largest encyclopedia ever written," and thousands so far have done so. Quality is maintained by hundreds of "core regulars" who eyeball all the recent changes and vet the entries and additions for accuracy and fairness. Since the work is Web-based, there's plenty of room for pictures and endless potential to...
  • Itunes And Lawsuits

    Last Wednesday brought two pieces of news in the ever evolving digital music wars. On the positive side, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was singing "The Anniversary Song" in celebration of the first birthday of his iTunes store, by far the biggest emporium of legal song downloads. On the other coast, the Recording Industry Association of America, the lobbying arm of the major labels, crooned its old favorite, "You're in the Jailhouse Now." It sued 477 more music lovers for copyright infringement, this time focusing on college students.Even the RIAA admits that the lawsuits are a short-term measure to discourage otherwise law-abiding folk from sharing tunes with a few million people on Kazaa. Long-term, the strategy is supposedly moving the wired masses to legal services like iTunes, where the industry gets its cut. But while Jobs and other purveyors of online music are working hard to lure customers, the music industry's actions betray a persistent mistrust of the technology that will...
  • EXTREME MAKEOVER

    After 12 years at the helm of Autodesk--the San Rafael, Calif., company that creates the computer-aided design applications that help create "everything God doesn't"--Carol Bartz has spiffed up her company and herself. Autodesk has announced better-than-expected earnings, and for the first time anticipates a billion-dollar-revenue year in 2005. Personally, in what company insiders refer to "the Transformation," the 55-year-old CEO dramatically slimmed down. She recently reflected on her tenure. LEVY: Is your strong performance a signal that the economy is coming back?BARTZ: Our customers are the people who make the world's goods, so we are a bellwether. And so I believe [the economy is] definitely on the way up.What's "the digital-design data revolution"?The way that data gets around now is FedEx, feet, flying, phone and fax. The process has to be automated, so you can keep that information digital and manage it a lot better.Where do you stand on outsourcing?We have a development...
  • FREE? HE SAYS FEE!

    Darl McBride, the CEO of the most hated company that most people never heard of, considers himself simply a guy trying to save a struggling business. It just so happens that doing so could stifle software competition and reap rewards for a business model based on a legal form of extortion. His strategy? Launching a litigious cluster bomb so he can collect property rights from users of a software product created to avoid the drawbacks of property rights. The product is Linux, the lynchpin of the open-source movement that has become Microsoft's biggest operating-system rival. McBride's weapon is a questionable claim that Linux contains code that belongs to him. And much of the money that's helping to finance his campaign is directly or indirectly attributable to Linux's biggest foe, the Redmond monopoly.No wonder McBride's face is on the dartboard of a thousand geeks, and his Web site the target of endless hacks.The intricacies of SCO's four (and counting) lawsuits are positively...
  • ALL EYES ON GOOGLE

    Short of "you're under arrest" there are very few things that the leaders of a young technology company would like less to hear than "Bill Gates thinks you've kicked his butt and now he wants your business." But Sergey Brin and Larry Page don't seem ruffled at all. Hanging out one day in their spacious new headquarters, the two young cofounders of Google are calm, even confident, in the face of a rising tide of competitors, technology challenges and the tricky process of using the principles of disorganization to build a substantial company out of one unquestionably brilliant idea.Let's face it--it's good to be Google. Every minute, worldwide, in 90 languages, the index of this Internet-based search engine created by these Stanford doctoral dropouts is probed more than 138,000 times. In the course of a day, that's over 200 million searches of 6 billion Web pages, images and discussion-group postings. Searches for golf clubs, song lyrics, tomorrow night's blind date, recipes and the...
  • DEAN'S NET EFFECT IS JUST THE START

    For many of us, Howard Dean's bid for the white house is already fading into the wonkier recesses of our brains, the famous scream taking its place in politics-junkie lore with Mike Dukakis's tank ride and Ed Muskie's tears. The only remaining question in this saga involves the campaign's innovative use of the Internet for community building, policy positioning and raising money. Considering the campaign's January cliff dive, one might reasonably ask whether this megapublicized phenomenon was overhyped.A portion of the punditry can't resist comparing the campaign to the tech boom of the '90s--an overinflated bubble that left its naive believers drenched in soap scum.Try telling that to the architect of Dean's strategy, campaign manager Joe Trippi. "It wasn't a dot-com bust," he insists. "It was a dot-com miracle." Point taken. It was only through the Internet that an obscure former governor raised more bucks than a pack of better-known heavy hitters. It was only through the Internet...
  • GEEK WAR ON TERROR

    Not long after 19 terrorists boarded four airplanes on a rendezvous with infamy, Jeff Jonas asked himself a question: did officials have the necessary information to identify these killers before they took their seats back on September 11, 2001? Since Jonas's livelihood is fingering bad guys--the Las Vegas firm he founded, Systems Research and Development (SRD), helps casinos shut their doors to mobsters and card counters--he had his own ideas for exploiting information that had, in fact, been available before 9/11. First, he found that two of the terrorists, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, flying under their real names, were on a State Department watch list. A third had the same address as Alhazmi; two others (including Muhammad Atta) shared a residence with Almihdhar. Five others had the same phone number as Atta. Another had the same frequent-flier number as Almihdhar. All in all, using the techniques that Jonas has perfected at SRD, 14 of the 19 terrorists might have been...
  • BILL JOY, TO THE WORLD

    Bill Joy is one of the top minds in computing, a technologist with a sweeping vision of the world. A cofounder of Sun Microsystems in 1982, he has accomplishments that range from working on the Java computing language to writing a jeremiad in Wired magazine about nanotechnology, genetic engineering and self-replicating robots. Last fall the Aspen, Colo., resident shocked the tech world by leaving Sun. As enterprise found, unemployment hasn't dulled Joy's insights.LEVY: What have you been doing since leaving Sun? ...
  • MICROSOFT: HEY, YOU'VE GOT WORMS

    Last week the internet--and maybe your own PC--hosted Mydoom, the fastest-growing computer worm ever. Like its parasitic predecessors (Blaster, Sobig), this troublemaker appears as an e-mail with a misleading subject line and an attachment. Click on the latter, and Mydoom infects your machine, mails out similar messages and, at a certain date, uses your browser to attack the Web site of a company called SCO. (Why? Because SCO is pursuing a patent claim against the Linux operating system, beloved by geeks.) Craig Schmugar of Avert, who codiscovered and named the worm, says that at its peak more than 10 percent of all e-mail was Mydoom, with about half a million computers infected.Like previous big-time cyberworms, Mydoom runs on Microsoft Windows--two years after Bill Gates's "Trustworthy Computing" memo, wherein he pledged an all-out effort to fight such scourges. Nonetheless, Michael Nash, head of Microsoft's security business unit, says, "I feel very proud of the progress we've...
  • TECHNOLOGY: EYE ON THE DASH

    In the latest skirmish in Microsoft's epic online war with AOL, broadband services take center stage. MSN Premium, $10 a month to customers already paying for high-speed connections, gives you up to 11 accounts (which can be bequeathed even to distant friends and relatives), pop-up guards and ongoing virus protection. (Disclosure: NEWSWEEK has a strategic alliance with MSN.) The souped-up browser--with big fat icons on top--has a slick "dashboard" that you can configure to add stuff like stocks, local weather and a personal slide show. Mail, as always, is superior to AOL's version. But the coolest feature is Photo E-mail, which lets you share scrapbooks' worth of pictures without clogging up the in boxes of those, um, lucky recipients.
  • OK, MAC, MAKE A WISH

    Twenty years ago there was panic in Cupertino, Calif. Only a week remained before the team of whiz kids designing Apple's radical new computer had to turn in the final code. The giant factory was ready. The soon-to-be-famous Super Bowl commercial was ready. But the computer wasn't.As recounted by software wizard Andy Hertzfeld on a new cyberdigital history site (folklore.org), the already overworked Mac team trudged back to the cubicles for seven days of debugging hell, fueled by espresso chocolate beans and a dream. And on Jan. 24, 1984, their leader, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, recited a verse from "The Times They Are A-Changin'," then formally unveiled the Macintosh, a boxy little guy with a winning smile icon on its nine-inch monochrome screen. The Mac-oids fully expected to make computer history, and they did. What surprises them now is that their creation is still around two decades later.Only nine years after the first personal computer (a build-it-yourself box whose only...
  • TECHNOLOGY: THE WEEK OF THE GIZMOS

    Last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was all about crowing that the long-promised "digital convergence" was finally underway. Typical breakthrough product: Sony's not-yet-shipping LocationFree portable-TV system, a wireless 12-inch touchscreen LCD monitor with a Wi-Fi base station. Connect the base station to your cable line, TiVo, DVD changer and other media doo-dads and presto, you can watch the football game anywhere there's a broadband connection--the den, the local Starbucks or a Helsinki hotel room. If you're not in a hot zone, check out the score on Microsoft's long-awaited SPOT watch. For 10 bucks a month you not only get the correct time but also sports, news, weather, stock quotes and personal messages and appointments. The geeky wrist devices are made by Fossil and Suunto. Earlier in the week, at the Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs introduced the iPod mini, a lower-cost and more compact version of Apple's best-selling music (2 million so far) player. Looking like...
  • IS IT REAL, OR IS IT MICROSOFT?

    The next ownership meeting of the Seattle Mariners could be an interesting one. Minority shareholder Rob Glaser will face several other part owners who have day jobs at his former employer, Microsoft. Though Glaser's Internet media company, Real Networks, has been competing with the Softies for almost all of its 10-year existence, last month it hurled a billion-dollar bean ball toward Redmond: an antitrust suit charging unfair competition.The suit represents a rite of passage for a company whose business model (handling the guts of music and video transmission) places it in the path of Bill Gates's no-reverse-gear backhoe. The suit, combined with a European Union investigation of Microsoft's practices toward Real Networks (basically, shutting out its software in favor of the Windows Media alternative), gives Glaser hope that for the first time Microsoft will be forced to compete on a level playing field. For its part, Microsoft dismisses the suit as "rearview-mirror litigation,"...
  • Technology: Owning The Music

    Record labels can stop their moaning now. In 2003 music lovers finally got the chance to download tunes legally--and proved that if given a convivial experience and the stuff they wanted to hear, they would indeed pay for the songs they could get elsewhere free. Apple's iTunes Music Store just racked up its 25 millionth 99-cent download ("Let It Snow," sung by Frank Sinatra). Now comes a host of competitors including Dell, Wal-Mart, Napster and Microsoft. Even file-sharing giant Kazaa's CEO Nikki Hemming says that her company's future lies in selling copyrighted music to law-abiding customers.While iTunes and stores like it follow the familiar model in which you purchase music outright, the more radical solutions are subscription services like Rhapsody that offer "all you can eat" for a monthly fee, as long as you keep paying for it. These schemes are tied to your computer, but soon we'll see products that stream hundreds of thousands of songs to your home stereo and even your cell...
  • Viewpoint: Hackers? No Way.

    Just because the tools of thievery and extortion are lines of computer code doesn't mean that Internet crooks are hackers. By hijacking this once glorious appellation, these lowlifes are debasing a powerful, world-changing tradition. The subject is a touchy one for me because I wrote about the real thing in my first book, called (what else?) "Hackers," in 1984. (The marketing department of my publisher objected to the use of such an obscure title.) Hackers were driven to write code, discover the secrets of the new realm of computation and fulfill themselves by making computers do what others claimed could not be done. Working late at night (the only period when precious computer time was available), those so-called nerds were the first to understand the power of inactivity--sending something to the computer and getting an instant response--and, just for fun, they invented computer games, word processing, networking and other things that are now at the center of the computing...
  • Twilight Of The Pc Era?

    Nicholas Carr seems an unlikely candidate for the technology world's Public Enemy No. 1. A mild-mannered 44-year-old magazine editor and freelance writer, he's spent five years laboring for the Harvard Business Review, not exactly a hotbed of bomb-throwers. But now he finds himself branded a wild-eyed heretic and a threat to the underpinnings of the entire economy. His offense? Penning a 12-page article about the state of information-technology (IT) investment in the corporate world. Why has it jacked up the aggregate blood pressure in Armonk, N.Y., Silicon Valley, Calif., and Redmond, Wash.? Consider the title: "IT Doesn't Matter." ...
  • He's Still Having Fun

    Bill Gates acknowledges in a draft of an upcoming white paper that "computing today is at a crossroads." But he's got no doubt about the ultimate destination: more innovation, with his own company leading the way, of course. NEWSWEEK's Steven Levy recently sat down in New York City with Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect to discuss technology, security and even a bit of politics.LEVY: What's Microsoft's next big push?GATES: There's a lot of breakthroughs we see coming in software to solve some of the boundary problems we think exist today: the boundary between you and your machine... in terms of how you use speech, do you use ink, does the machine remember how you like to do things, the boundary between the different devices. There's never been a software company spending $6.9 billion a year tackling these problems. And so either [the critics] are right and those breakthroughs won't take place and I'll have to tell shareholders I'm sorry. Or they will in large part...
  • Twilight Of The PC Era?

    Some Commentators Are Proclaiming The End Of The Computer World's Glory Days. But More Chip Power And Connectivity Might Produce The Biggest Changes Yet
  • He's Still Having Fun

    In a draft of an upcoming white paper, Bill Gates acknowledges that "computing today is at a crossroads." But he's got no doubt about the ultimate destination: more innovation, with his own company leading the way, of course. NEWSWEEK's Steven Levy recently sat down in New York City with Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect to discuss technology, security and even a bit of politics.LEVY: What's Microsoft's next big push?GATES: There's a lot of breakthroughs we see coming in software to solve some of the boundary problems we think exist today: the boundary between you and your machine... in terms of how you use speech, do you use ink, does the machine remember how you like to do things, the boundary between the different devices. There's never been a software company spending $6.9 billion a year tackling these problems. And so either [the critics] are right and those breakthroughs won't take place and I'll have to tell shareholders I'm sorry. Or they will in large part...
  • Can't I Work In Peace?

    Every time Microsoft unveils a new version of its flagship application-software suite, Office, a single question forms on the lips of millions: "Should I upgrade?" Poor souls. Don't they understand that for almost everybody, upgrading is not a case of if but when? No matter how minuscule the motivation, a time will come when adopting the most recent version becomes less trouble than resisting it. For me, there is a more interesting question that arises during a rollout of Office, invariably highlighted by a ritual benediction from Bill Gates. How will Microsoft argue that the latest model is far, far superior than the newly displaced previous version?This year, to my dismay, one key argument was that Office 2003 was geared toward "collaboration." Forgive me, but when I hear that word applied to software, I reach for my revolver. Ever since the first efforts at what used to be called "groupware," I've been suspicious of efforts to open up applications so that everyone gets to take...
  • Welcome To History 2.0

    October was a busy news month. Iraq smoldered. California elected Arnold, then burned. Kobe hit the docket. But my bet is that in a hundred years, people, if there are any, will agree that the biggest story was the one that appeared on the computer screens of millions who made routine visits to the online superstore Amazon.com. On Thursday, Oct. 23, founder Jeff Bezos told customers that his "search inside the book" service would allow them to type a name or phrase--and be immediately rewarded with a report of instances of those words appearing in the pages of one of 120,000 tomes. Then, with a single click, Amazon would deliver an image of the very page in question."The program is 100 percent focused on selling more books," says Amazon VP Steve Kessel. But for anyone who's ever done even casual research work, Amazon's scheme is much more than a sales device: it's a lightning bolt from the future. Some people literally broke out in tears as they punched in queries and unearthed...
  • Black Box Voting Blues

    After the traumas of butterfly ballots and hanging chad, election officials are embracing a brave new ballot: sleek, touch-screen terminals known as direct recording electronic voting systems (DRE). States are starting to replace their Rube Goldbergesque technology with digital devices like the Diebold Accu-Vote voting terminal. Georgia uses Diebolds exclusively, and other states have spent millions on such machines, funded in part by the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act. Many more terminals are on the way.Unfortunately, the machines have "a fatal disadvantage," says Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, who's sponsoring legislation on the issue. "They're unverifiable. When a voter votes, he or she has no way of knowing whether the vote is recorded." After you punch the buttons to choose your candidates, you may get a final screen that reflects your choices--but there's no way to tell that those choices are the ones that ultimately get reported in the final tally. You simply have to trust...
  • Technology: Apps, I Did It Again

    Is it time for another version of Office? Ready or not--and many people think that the current model is more than enough for the tasks they perform--Microsoft is back with Office Systems, a whole slew of products including the upgrade of its flagship suite. Does Office 2003 (available in various editions from $499 for the pro version to $149 for the student pack) demand an upgrade? A lot of the new features can potentially streamline certain complicated data-handling tasks, and other stuff helps those who work collaboratively on big projects. But the most noticeable tweaks for just plain people are an impressively spiffed-up Outlook module (enabling you to sift through e-mail as deftly as Uma Thurman dispatches ninjas), improved readability in Word and a useful new note-taking app called OneNote. Nice touches, but casual users need not rush to the computer store.
  • Pumping Up The Volume

    When Steve Jobs was dismissed from Apple, the company he cofounded, by the then CEO John Sculley 18 years ago, the blow was particularly brutal because Jobs himself had wooed Sculley from his post as head of Pepsi. His challenge to Sculley had been, "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life?"Last week Jobs, who has reclaimed the reins at Apple and restored the company to glory--most recently by taking the leadership in selling online music with its 99-cents-a-song iTunes Music Store--announced a new alliance. With Pepsi-Cola. Next February and March, 100 million Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and Sierra Mist bottles with yellow caps will have a code printed on them that grants sugar-water guzzlers a free song from Apple's slick Internet emporium--and teaches them the joys of legal digital music.The Pepsi deal was only the fizz in Jobs's continuing campaign to let the carrot, and not the stick, save the music industry from death at the hands of Internet pirates. He also announced...
  • Reflections Of A 'Quicksilver' Mind

    Science fiction, says Neal Stephenson, is "fiction in which ideas play an important part." Ideas abound in his 927-page "Quicksilver," the first of the three-volume "Baroque Cycle," set entirely between 1656 and 1714. At the center of this sprawling, irreverent narrative is the concept of a world being transformed by science. Key among its dramatis personae are the real-life figures of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who interact with Stephenson's quirky fictional characters. The author spoke recently with NEWSWEEK's Steven Levy.LEVY: The "Baroque Cycle" is nearly 3,000 pages long. Who's going to read all this?STEPHENSON: It's a big planet. Even if the vast majority have short attention spans, there are lots who are more than happy to read big, long epics that they can lose themselves in.You seem to regard some of your characters as the 17th-century equivalent of hackers. Instead of the computer, they had the scientific method.Everything they could get their hands on-...