Steven Levy

Stories by Steven Levy

  • Can Snooping Stop Terrorism?

    It's official: the Pentagon's Terrorism (formerly total) Information Awareness program has been a Total Institutional Disaster. Last month Congress pulled the plug on the Department of Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) high-tech initiative to identify terrorist threats. Certainly everyone concerned with the ability of the government to snoop on its citizens should be satisfied that, in this case at least, legislators stood up for the sanctity of personal information. But I suggest we go easy on the celebrations.First some explanation. DARPA, the DoD agency known for developing cutting-edge technology for the military that often benefits all of us (best example: the Internet), jumped into the post-9/11 effort to prevent terrorism with a plan that would, in part, "mine" massive amounts of records, including personal transactions of U.S. citizens. The Orwellian implications proved fatal, and Congress closed down that project (while DARPA itself continues). Still, the project...
  • Words On The Wired Age

    Is it a coincidence that when the tech industry hit bottom, there seemed to be fewer good books on geeky topics? And now that digital mojo is making a comeback on Wall Street, all of a sudden there's a wealth of tomes that touch on tech? Here's a sampling of some of the better selections from the wired-book bag, beginning with an eponymous volume.Wired--A Romance. In mid-1992, I got a call from Kevin Kelly, an editor I knew. He was soliciting stories for a new magazine aspiring to become the flagship of the digital age. I agreed to do a big story for him (and appear on the masthead, unpaid, as a contributing writer, an arrangement that continues), but asked for my travel expenses in advance. The whole thing sounded shaky to me.Little did I know that Wired, founded by a dreamy but iron-willed visionary named Louis Rossetto, would indeed fulfill some of his seemingly delusional plans. For several years Wired was the bible of the tech world, blowing minds with the latest silicon...
  • The Oracle Speaks

    Larry Ellison has never been shy of publicity. The richest man in Silicon Valley and the relentlessly aggressive founder of the relentlessly aggressive Oracle software company has cultivated an image as a computer-industry leader more like a James Bond villain (building a $100 million 16th-century Japanese-style estate, sailing world-class vessels, flying jet-fighter planes and squiring beautiful women) than a numbers-obsessed geek. Still, it raised a few eyebrows when the unpredictable Ellison agreed to put himself under a microscope for "Softwar," an ambitious book by Matthew Symonds that comes out this week, with a running commentary in footnotes from Ellison himself. Before taking his America's Cup-contending boat Oracle BMW for a Moet Cup rematch against the champion, Alinghi, Ellison recently found time to talk to NEWSWEEK's Steven Levy about Oracle's future, the ongoing competition with Microsoft, his attempt to buy competitor PeopleSoft, his evolving management style and...
  • Larry, With Tears

    Early in "Softwar," Matthew Symonds's authorized "intimate portrait" of Larry Ellison, we glimpse the man considered Silicon Valley's most ruthless, vain and driven competitor. He is weeping because his beloved cat of 10 years, Maggie, has died. Consider it a signal. Symonds, while dutifully asking his subject critical questions from time to time, does not present the dour view of Ellison held by much of the industry, but a largely sympathetic portrait of the man who would be software's king. As a result, the novel idea of having Ellison himself comment on Symonds's text (over which Ellison had no veto power) is largely wasted, since the subject seldom has much of importance to argue about. (Ellison's remarks, though, are often witty and pungent. In one he writes--perhaps thinking of Maggie--"people regularly mistake obedience for intelligence. That's why we think dogs are more important than cats.")As a former technology editor of The Economist, a founding editorial director of The...
  • A 'Quicksilver' Mind

    Science fiction, says Neal Stephenson, is "fiction in which ideas play an important part." Ideas certainly abound in his 927-page "Quicksilver," the first of the three-volume "Baroque Cycle," set entirely between the years 1656 and 1714. At the center of this sprawling, irreverent and ultimately profound narrative is the concept of a world being irrevocably 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 typically quirky and resourceful fictional characters. The Seattle-based author spoke recently with NEWSWEEK's Steven Levy.LEVY: The "Baroque Cycle" is nearly 3,000 pages of historical fiction, brimming with new ideas. Who's going to read all this?STEPHENSON: It's a big planet. Even if the vast majority have short attention spans and won't like this book, there are lots and lots who are more than happy to read big, long epics that they can lose themselves in. The...
  • Faq: Are You Next?

    Now that the recording industry is hauling people into court for trading in copyrighted files, parents have taken a sudden interest in the technicalities and legalities of file sharing. Here's a brief primer to help clear up the static.What's permitted and what's outlawed in digital music?It's perfectly legal to take CDs you purchased in a store, put them in your computer and "rip" (copy in a compressed format) the songs to your hard drive. And you are also permitted to "burn" copies of the songs onto CDs for your own personal use. But it's not OK to get those same songs from a service like Kazaa or LimeWire and make them available on the Internet.How do I know if I'm sharing songs?When you join a file-sharing service, a folder for shared files is generated. Typically, if you do nothing, all the songs you download will go into that folder and automatically become available to the entire world every time you go online. If the RIAA picks you as a target you can be liable for up to ...
  • Courthouse Rock

    Joyce Mullen's new car has a CD player, so this year the 53-year-old administrative assistant for Lucent began purchasing discs, most recently a Cher collection. But her relationship with the music industry changed last Monday, when the phone rang in the house she shares with her family on a leafy street in Methuen, Mass. It was a reporter asking how it felt to be sued by the giant corporations who sell the CDs she'd been buying. Her husband--who never touches the family computer--was among the 261 defendants in suits filed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). What made the family liable for millions of dollars in penalties were the 1,080 or so songs downloaded by their 21-year-old daughter Meghan and shared with the world via an Internet file-sharing service called iMesh. Joyce Mullen won't be buying music for quite a while. "If you're going to lose your house," she says, "how are you going to buy a CD?"The file-sharing boom, in which 60 million Americans have...
  • Games: Tiger's New Hit

    This was a lost year for Tiger Woods at the major tourneys. But it was pure birdie land for his wonderfully executed and infuriatingly addictive videogame, which raised blisters on the thumbs of millions. Next week Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 (PS2, Xbox, GameCube and Game Boy Advance; Electronic Arts, $50) steps things up even more. The basic gameplay is the same, but players can now launch entire careers on the PGA tour (playing up to 10 seasons), as well as taking on the world in a colorful roundelay of international tournaments. They can also create golfers in their own images--complete with tattoos and acne--or get fancy duds with corporate logos that pay each round for the exposure. Finally, among the competition is John Daly. If the big guy hits an awful shot, he bangs his club on the ground, shattering the pastoral calm of the links. Awesome!
  • A Geek Bill Of Rights

    Only a few decades ago, exposing kids to computers was considered a radical idea, as well as a waste of precious mainframe time. Now the computer-children tandem is as natural as the combo of kids and dogs. But computer technology is far from an unadulterated benefit for youngsters. A digital divide assures that the rich get geekier. The Internet suffers from the same kind of perils--crime, porn and unchecked facts about Ben Affleck--found in the physical world. Some educators want computers to replace some of the still-essential basics of learning: linguistic expression, and above all, the irreplaceable experience of a good teacher doing good teaching. What's needed is something like a Kid's Computer Bill of Rights to make sure the next generation gets the benefit of the last century's most important invention while avoiding the digital downside.Here's my personal list of particulars:Universal Internet access. Every kid should have access to a computer and the Internet. It's a no...
  • TECHNOLOGY: NOT JUST BUDDIES

    With membership shrinking, America Online hopes to reload with its latest upgrade, AOL 9.0 (available free to members). Some features are goofy, like a Toontown version of emoticons called SuperBuddy Icons, including one based on Ben Stiller and another on a triggerfish. Others are long overdue, like a fortified mail client that unabashedly borrows from competitor Microsoft's Outlook. Parental controls are improved, more spam is blocked and there are beefed-up security features like firewalls for broadband users. The popular "You've Got Pictures" application now lets you more easily integrate photos into mail, albums and Web logs. (Yes, the new AOL lets you blog!) The most subversive idea is adding voice capability to instant messaging: it's like free long-distance phone calls.
  • Predicting Terror: Foolish Bet

    The way news broke last week of retired Adm. John Poindexter's pending resignation from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is emblematic of his troubled tenure as head of the Terrorist Information Awareness project: a leaked revelation with no official explanation.The departure comes after months of pressure. Poindexter did have certain qualifications for the task of fighting terrorism by exploiting out-of-the-box high-tech approaches: Ronald Reagan's former national-security adviser was a closet geek who had been involved for years on plans to mine information from myriad databases. But a project like TIA requires trust between its creators and a public concerned about protecting its privacy from a program that involves sifting through massive amounts of personal information. Poindexter's past--convicted of lying to Congress during Iran-contra--precluded such trust. (His five felony counts were overturned on appeal.) Finally, Poindexter had an uncanny cluelessness...
  • Pirates Of The Internet

    Last month I attended a hearing of the senate judiciary Committee with an intriguing title: "The dark side of a bright idea: Could personal and national-security risks compromise the potential of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks?" I certainly was aware that some members of Congress wanted to snuff out the grass-roots phenomena of people's swapping copyrighted songs on the Net. But I assumed that the crime of file-sharing, joyfully committed by an estimated 60 million pirates, was mainly a problem of lost revenues for the music industry. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, giving the opening testimony, argued otherwise, calling file-sharing networks a grave security risk to this nation. In reality, the hearing was nothing but one of several signs of a new hardball offensive against file-sharing for the same old reasons: protecting the business model of the record labels.What was the alleged national-security issue? Strictly yellowcake. Researchers testified that because of a confusing interface...
  • Machine Vs. Man: Checkmate

    Garry Kasparov's head is bowed, buried in his hands. Is he in despair, or just stealing a minute of rest in his relentless quest to regain the world championship, promote chess and represent humanity in the epic conflict between man and machine? He professes the latter. But no one could blame the greatest grandmaster in history if he did succumb to bleakness. His own experiences indicate the end of the line for human mastery of the chessboard. In the sport of brains, silicon rules.Still, Kasparov is preparing to throw himself into the breach once more. In November he will play his third computer opponent in a highly touted match. The first, of course, was IBM's Deep Blue, which in 1997 beat him in a battle that he insists to this day was unfairly stacked against him. Then, earlier this year, he fought to an unsatisfying draw against Deep Junior, programmed by two Israelis. Next up will be X3d Fritz, a world-class program modified to "play in the third dimension," where his 3-D...
  • Net Savings

    Propeller heads have long predicted that the Internet would become the preferred long-distance medium for actual conversation. But "voice over IP"--if that isn't geeky enough, try "VoIP"--has to date been a hard-to-use, low-quality means of barking to someone via the microphone of your PC. Now Net2Phone is offering a VoIP service for calls on your home or office land-line phone, or even your cell phone--at way-cheap rates. Once you sign up and give Net2Phone your credit card, you just punch in (or speed dial) the access number and then you can call anyone in the world. The bills come on your card statement.Quality? An intercontinental call on land-line phones (four cents a minute) sounded great; chatter with a friend in Brazil from a cell phone in New York was a bit muddy. Mitigating factor: 10 cents a minute to So Paulo. You can check it out at Net2Phone.com.
  • Net Savings

    Propeller heads have long predicted that the Internet would become the preferred long-distance medium for actual conversation. But "voice over IP"--if that isn't geeky enough, try "VoIP"--has to date been a hard-to-use, low-quality means of barking to someone via the microphone of your PC. Now Net2Phone is offering a VoIP service for calls on your home or office land-line phone, or even your cell phone--at way-cheap rates. Once you sign up and give Net2Phone your credit card, you just punch in (or speed dial) the access number and then you can call anyone in the world. The bills come on your card statement, just like an EZ Pass.Quality? An intercontinental call on land-line phones (four cents a minute) sounded great; chatter with a friend in Brazil from a cell phone was a bit muddy. Mitigating factor: 10 cents a minute to So Paulo. You can check it out at Net2Phone.com.
  • Info With A Ball And Chain

    When Steve Jobs introduced the iTunes music store a few weeks ago, the acclaim was nearly universal. Nonetheless, a small but vocal minority viewed the online emporium as a menace--because the iTunes program somewhat limits a consumer's ability to copy and share songs. Even though Apple had broken ground by getting the record labels to accept fairly liberal terms of use--Apple-oids could listen to purchased songs on three computers and burn CDs--this bunch objected to any restrictions at all. They saw the iTunes store as a sugar-coated inducement for consumers to accept a new reality: some stuff on your computer isn't really under your control. And as far as that goes, the critics are right. Say goodbye to the "Information Wants to Be Free" era. We're entering the age of digital ankle bracelets.The key to this shift is the technology that protects information from unauthorized or illegal use. It's called digital-rights-management software, or DRM. Like it or not, rights management...
  • Technology: Faithful Sidekick

    The new version of the Danger Hiptop communicator--marketed by the T-Mobile network as the Sidekick--is like a great popcorn movie: all the cool stuff is on the screen. The Sidekick tries to deliver all the functionality of an e-mail device, Web browser, cell phone, PDA, digital camera and Game Boy--doing better at some tricks than others. But everything is enhanced by a razor-sharp, brightly backlit color display. Strong suits include e-mail (the display slides to expose a thumb-oriented keyboard), AOL Instant Messenger and an awesome Asteroids-style game. Not so great: a clunky phone. Still, at $300 and all-you-can-eat Internet for less than $50 a month, a lot of folks will want Sidekick when it's rolled out later this month.
  • Two Gorillas Make Nice

    Last week the technology elite gathered in Carlsbad, Calif., for a Wall Street Journal technology conference. Nobody gave it a second thought that some of the Microsoft people seemed to be hanging around folks from America Online just a little too much for blood rivals. But second thoughts were in order. Just after the conference closed last Thursday, the two biggest and fiercest competitors in the digital world veered sharply from a collision course for an ugly court battle over Microsoft's anticompetitive behavior. Instead, they announced that AOL Time Warner was dropping its antitrust suit (a follow-on to the federal case lost by Microsoft) and entering a collaboration with Bill Gates and company that involved digital-property protection, licensing agreements and distribution arrangements.Both sides are talking like winners. Microsoft gets to spin an embarrassing payoff for misconduct into a sweeping technology alliance with the world's biggest Internet provider. (The $750...
  • Gadgets: Ipods For Everyone

    Steve jobs is no stranger to hyperbole, but he had a point when he introduced the latest line of iPods last week: "It's our third generation and no one's caught up to the first," he said. Apple's new digital music players--which sync perfectly with Apple's new music-downloading store--are sleeker than the originals, about the thickness of a slice of toast. You can now create a playlist on the fly. Windows users can connect to their Bill boxes via the USB 2.0 standard. And prices are down: $299 for a 10-gigabyte version that stores 2,000 songs, $399 for 15 gigs and $499 for a monster 30 gigger. So what's the catch? Smaller batteries. The old models nearly rocked around the clock--10 hours--before recharging. On new models the music dies in eight hours.
  • Spot The Terrorist

    Jay Walker achieved fame and fortune as an internet pioneer (Priceline.com), then notoriety and considerably less fortune as an icon of the dot-com bust. But his legacy might one day be a sweeping scheme for homeland security that doesn't earn him a buck. For the past few months, Walker has quietly been visiting key figures in Washington, D.C., to brief them on an idea he calls US HomeGuard. It is audacious, ingenious and a little bit scary. Basically, it attempts to protect chemical plants, reservoirs and airports--all targets where terrorists could get horrifying results with relatively little effort--by a system involving 10 million Webcams and a stay-at-home army of up to a million watchful citizens.Did I say a little bit scary? I'm getting hives just typing this.But scarier still is not doing something to protect ourselves against demonstrably real threats. We found this out, of course, on September 11. Walker himself saw the tragic columns of smoke as he was driving down the...
  • Not The Same Old Song

    Steve would have made a good rock star," said Roger Ames after Apple CEO Steve Jobs's tour de force introduction last week of the Apple iTunes Music Store. Ames, the head of Warner Music Group, knows rock stars--and he also knows that something had to be done to change his industry's relationship to the Internet, from black hole to bankroll. Will Apple's bold introduction of a friendly online music store (built into its iTunes software, available only on Macintoshes and synced to iPods) break the logjam? "Absolutely," says Jobs. "This is huge." But plenty of questions remain. NEWSWEEK takes on a some key ones:What's the big deal about the Apple Music Store?Don't think of it as a "down-load service" but a terrific online destination--a well-designed, easily navigable Web site that welcomes browsing (hear a high-quality sample of every one of the 200,000 songs), offers special items (unreleased cuts by Bob Dylan and Eminem) and, when you decide you want a song, instantly sends it to...
  • The Connected Company

    To understand how business runs in the 21st century, just look at the business end of the military. It's all about connectedness. Connections to outsiders lead to vital information: Saddam-istas in a compound near a Baghdad restaurant. From there, a well-designed cascade of communications kicks in. And in 45 minutes, not much more time than it takes to deliver a pizza, deadly ordnance connects with the target.Fortunately, the consequences aren't as dire in corporate conflicts, but the lesson is clear: persistent, smart connections lead to successful outcomes. The leaders of connected companies--like the ones featured in the following pages--have long ago boarded this particular cluetrain. They know that to thrive in today's Mad Max competitive landscape CEOs must keep open lines and open minds to a critical trifecta: fellow workers, suppliers and customers. They understand that the palette of tools available is broad--from instant messaging to wireless technologies named after...
  • The Killer Browser

    Just about the only place you could get something to eat at 4 in the morning in Champaign, Ill., in early 1993 was a convenience store called the White Hen Pantry. "It's kind of a Midwest 7-Eleven," says Marc Andreessen, who would often stumble out of his workspace at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at ungodly hours in search of sustenance. Andreessen, 21 years old at the time, and fellow NCSA worker Eric Bina were working on a program they called Mosaic. One night at the White Hen, Andreessen scanned the newsstand and saw the first issue of a magazine called Wired. "I thought, 'Wow, this is pretty interesting stuff'," he recalls of the magazine that promised to treat technology as a cultural breakthrough. "But you know what? The magazine didn't mention the Internet once."The project that Andreessen and Bina were hatching would change that. Posted on the Internet in beta form--free of charge--in March 1993 and in an official release the following month, Mosaic...
  • Random Access Online: Bloggers' Delight

    When I tracked down Sean-Paul Kelley, he was taking on CNN, NBC, Fox and The New York Times with a Compaq laptop wirelessly connected to a cable modem in the single bedroom of the San Antonio, Texas, apartment he shares with his wife and a calico cat named Barsik."I've got 32 windows open on my browser, the TV is on, and I've got the BBC on my RealPlayer," says the 32-year-old freelance financial consultant. "I woke up to 332 e-mails this morning."From this command post, Kelley single-handedly creates a Weblog called The Agonist, which tracks and comments on developments in the war with Iraq. (Weblogs, or blogs, in case you're missing this grass-roots movement, are journal-like personal Web sites consisting of short items and links to other information on the Internet.) "I felt the media wasn't doing a good enough job of covering the nuances of international relations," he says. Apparently thousands of readers agree with him: The Agonist is among the most popular of a group of ...
  • Secrecy Rarely Works

    Last month some researchers at England's Cambridge University made a disturbing discovery about certain bank ATMs: it's possible to steal from them from your account. Don't panic--the flaw they found could be exploited only by an insider, and many U.S. banks don't use the hardware systems in question. But this was small comfort to a Diners Club cardholder and his wife, who were shocked to find themselves charged for about $80,000 in withdrawals from London ATMs. The cardholders were at home--in South Africa-- on the March 2000 weekend when the machines gave out cash in their names, 190 times. Diners Club and its owner, Citibank, are suing, saying the charges should stick because the system is infallible. The defendants have turned to the Cambridge researchers to challenge that conclusion. But, claiming a threat to ATM security, the plaintiffs have asked for--and received--an order that technical testimony can be given only in closed chambers and cannot be made public, ever.Ross...
  • Marketing: Flogging On A Blog

    The exploding popularity of Weblogs--diarylike personal Web sites, also known as blogs--is often touted as a shining example of untainted expression. But marketers at Dr Pepper see the movement as the perfect launch point for a "grass roots" campaign for a new "milk-based product with an attitude," Raging Cow. The first step is an in-house blog (ragingcow.com); it tells the fictional backstory of the drink, which rolls out in April in flavors like Chocolate Insanity and Pina Colada Chaos.Next comes a blog-related twist on viral marketing--recruiting "key influence bloggers" to promote Raging Cow by sharing their enthusiasm, linking to the site and distributing special screensavers, banners and skins. Beginning with an initial group of six people in their late teens and early 20s--flown to Dallas with their parents for an induction session--Dr Pepper hopes to develop a "blogging network" to hype Raging Cow and "be part of the 'in the know' crowd," says its brand-marketing honcho...
  • How To Can The Spam

    Looking at my bloated in box, it's amazing to realize that less than a measly decade ago, you could have had a reasonable debate about whether the Internet should accommodate any commercialism. Now the argument is whether a vile form of capitalism will kill the Net's best feature: e-mail. Each hour brings a torrent of unwelcome and often appalling "spam"--a term insufficiently odious to describe what's happened to the poor Internet (at least you can spit out the real thing if someone sneaks it in your omelet). I am certain you are as fed up as I am with the promises to make body parts and bank accounts bigger, the offers to buy Viagra or inkjet cartridges and the opportunities to recover a hidden fortune of the widow of some fallen despot. And almost certainly, when starkly explicit images pop up on your screen, you have wondered just how this can be happening--and perhaps you've looked over your shoulder in case John Ashcroft is ready to cuff you for harboring sinful jpegs.So how...
  • Health: Fantastic Voyage

    One day not long ago, Richard Saul Wurman, the design wizard behind the "Access" book series, realized: "I knew more about the way my car works than the way my body does." So, for himself and his readers, he began work on a series of meaty booklets that make sense of basic health issues--like men's and women's diagnostic tests, cardiovascular problems and drugs (prescription, over-the-counter and herbal). All are rendered with Wurman's trademark graphical touch, demystifying complex subjects by use of laser-clear charts, gripping colors and illuminating layouts. Published by TOP, each costs $12.95. Next up for Wurman: "Understanding Health Care," out in July. It'll be his 81st book.
  • Microsoft Gets A Clue From Its Kiddie Corps

    Bill Gates didn't get it. Neither did Steve Ballmer. In July 2000, when Tammy Savage, a 30-year-old manager in business development, went before Microsoft's heavy hitters and presented a case that they were clue-challenged in understanding an entire generation, the reception was chillier than a campsite on Mount Rainier.She'd told them all about her perception that for young people, the Internet is like oxygen, and the 13-24 set "are on instant messenger before their morning coffee." To serve that crowd--the "NetGen" --Microsoft had to discard its methodology of starting with a technology and then creating products. Instead, Savage reasoned, the needs and attitudes of the customers should determine what software Microsoft should produce, and the technology should come later. If Microsoft wanted to be relevant in the future, she told them, it had to adjust to NetGen, even if it meant producing software that the middle-aged guys in the room didn't care for.Fortunately for Savage,...
  • Sony's New Day

    There are ghosts at Sony. You can hear them speak. On the ground floor of the company's Tokyo headquarters is a small museum. Behind a wall of glass, on a prominent pedestal, stands one of the original tape recorders produced in 1950 by a new enterprise called Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Co. (thankfully, the familiar name combining the Latin sonus and "sonny boy" came a few years later). Press a button and the voice of cofounder Akio Morita fades in. Morita and his partner, Masaru Ibuka, who gave Sony a legacy of creating irreverently innovative, culture-transforming devices, are dead, of course. But Sony's current executives constantly invoke their names--even as they explain how they are taking the company through the most dramatic transformation in its history.Sony, home of transistor radios, Trinitron, Walkman, Betamax, Bruce Springsteen, Spider-Man and Gran Turismo, now wants to be known as the home of connected entertainment in the digital age. CEO Nobuyuki Idei...