TIME Technologizer

How Gmail Happened: The Inside Story of Its Launch 10 Years Ago

Gmail Coming Soon
Gmail's home page as it looked on March 31, 2004, shortly before the service launched Skizzers.org

Google's email breakthrough was almost three years in the making. But it wasn't a given that it would reach the public at all

If you wanted to pick a single date to mark the beginning of the modern era of the web, you could do a lot worse than choosing Thursday, April 1, 2004, the day Gmail launched.

Scuttlebutt that Google was about to offer a free email service had leaked out the day before: Here’s John Markoff of the New York Times reporting on it at the time. But the idea of the search kingpin doing email was still startling, and the alleged storage capacity of 1GB—500 times what Microsoft’s Hotmail offered—seemed downright implausible. So when Google issued a press release date-stamped April 1, an awful lot of people briefly took it to be a really good hoax. (Including me.)

Gmail turned out to be real, and revolutionary. And a decade’s worth of perspective only makes it look more momentous.

The first true landmark service to emerge from Google since its search engine debuted in 1998, Gmail didn’t just blow away Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, the dominant free webmail services of the day. With its vast storage, zippy interface, instant search and other advanced features, it may have been the first major cloud-based app that was capable of replacing conventional PC software, not just complementing it.

Even the things about Gmail that ticked off some people presaged the web to come: Its scanning of messages to find keywords that could be used for advertising purposes kicked off a conversation about online privacy that continues on to this day.

Within Google, Gmail was also regarded as a huge, improbable deal. It was in the works for nearly three years before it reached consumers; during that time, skeptical Googlers ripped into the concept on multiple grounds, from the technical to the philosophical. It’s not hard to envision an alternate universe in which the effort fell apart along the way, or at least resulted in something a whole lot less interesting.

“It was a pretty big moment for the Internet,” says Georges Harik, who was responsible for most of Google’s new products when Gmail was hatched. (The company called such efforts “Googlettes” at the time.) “Taking something that hadn’t been worked on for years but was central, and fixing it.”

It All Began With Search

Gmail is often given as a shining example of the fruits of Google’s 20 percent time, its legendary policy of allowing engineers to divvy off part of their work hours for personal projects. Paul Buchheit, Gmail’s creator, disabused me of this notion. From the very beginning, “it was an official charge,” he says. “I was supposed to build an email thing.”

He began his work in August 2001. But the service was a sequel of sorts to a failed effort that dated from several years before he joined Google in 1999, becoming its 23rd employee.

Paul Buchheit
Gmail’s creator, Paul Buchheit, at his desk at Google in 1999 Courtesy Paul Buchheit

“I had started to make an email program before in, probably, 1996,” he explains. “I had this idea I wanted to build web-based email. I worked on it for a couple of weeks and then got bored. One of the lessons I learned from that was just in terms of my own psychology, that it was important that I always have a working product. The first thing I do on day one is build something useful, then just keep improving it.”

With Gmail–which was originally code-named Caribou, borrowing the name of a mysterious corporate project occasionally alluded to in Dilbert–the first useful thing Buchheit built was a search engine for his own email. And it did indeed take only a day to accomplish. His previous project had been Google Groups, which indexed the Internet’s venerable Usenet discussion groups: All he had to do was hack Groups’ lightning-fast search feature to point it at his mail rather than Usenet.

At first, Buchheit’s email search engine ran on a server at his own desk. When he sought feedback from other engineers, their main input was that it should search their mail, too. Soon, it did.

The fact that Gmail began with a search feature that was far better than anything offered by the major email services profoundly shaped its character. If it had merely matched Hotmail’s capacity, it wouldn’t have needed industrial-strength search. It’s tough, after all, to lose anything when all you’ve got is a couple of megabytes of space.

But serious search practically begged for serious storage: It opened up the possibility of keeping all of your email, forever, rather than deleting it frantically to stay under your limit. That led to the eventual decision to give each user 1GB of space, a figure Google settled on after considering capacities that were generous but not preposterous, such as 100MB.

“A lot of people thought it was a very bad idea, from both a product and a strategic standpoint.”Still, long before Google chose to give Gmail users 1GB of space, it had to decide that Gmail would be a commercial product at all. That wasn’t the no-brainer it might seem, even though Google had a maniacally email-centric culture itself.

In its early years, one of the defining things about the company was its obsessive focus on its search engine; that set it apart from Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and other search pioneers that had recast themselves as “portals,” expanding their ambitions to encompass everything from weather to sports to games to, yes, email. Portals had a reputation for doing many things, but not necessarily doing them all that well.

“A lot of people thought it was a very bad idea, from both a product and a strategic standpoint,” says Buchheit of his email project. “The concern was this didn’t have anything to do with web search. Some were also concerned that this would cause other companies such as Microsoft to kill us.”

Fortunately, the doubters didn’t include Google’s founders. “Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were always supportive,” Buchheit says. “A lot of other people were much less supportive.”

Buchheit had been working on his project for a month or two when he was joined by another engineer, Sanjeev Singh, with whom he’d found social-networking startup FriendFeed after leaving Google in 2006. (FriendFeed was acquired by Facebook in 2009.) The Gmail team grew over time, but not exponentially; even when the service launched in 2004, only a dozen or so people were working on it.

Gmail’s first product manager, Brian Rakowski, learned about the service from his boss, Marissa Mayer, on his first day at Google in 2002, fresh out of college. (He’s still at Google today, where he currently works on Android.) What he saw got him excited, but it was still an exceptionally rough draft.

“It didn’t look anything like what Gmail does now or even what it looked like when it launched,” he says. “I was just graduated from school and was indoctrinated in usability tests and target users. I was pretty paranoid that Google engineers would love it and it wouldn’t appeal to the mass market. I agonized over it a lot.”

All along, though, Gmail’s creators were building something to please themselves, figuring that their email problems would eventually be everybody’s problems. “Larry said normal users would look more like us in 10 years’ time,” Rakowski says.

What Does Google Email Look Like?

Even in August of 2003, two years into the effort, Gmail had only the most rudimentary of front ends. That’s when another new Google recruit, Kevin Fox, was assigned to design the service’s interface. (After leaving Google, he reuinited with Buchheit and Singh at FriendFeed.)

Fox knew that Gmail needed to look Googley; the challenge was that it wasn’t entirely clear what that meant. The company didn’t yet offer an array of services: Other than the company’s eponymous search engine, one of the few other precedents Fox could draw inspiration from was Google News, which had debuted in September of 2002. But search and News were both websites. Gmail was going to be a web app.

“It was a fundamentally different kind of product,” he says. “Fortunately, they gave me lots of latitude to explore different design directions.” Fox aimed for something that took cues from both websites and desktop applications without mindlessly mimicking either. After three major passes on the design, he settled on the look that’s still very much recognizable in today’s version of Gmail.

Gmail in 2004
Gmail as it appeared in April of 2004, in a screenshot created by its designer, Kevin Fox Kevin Fox

Thinking of Gmail as an app rather than a site had technical implications, too. Hotmail and Yahoo Mail had originally been devised in the mid-1990s; they sported dog-slow interfaces written in plain HTML. Almost every action you took required the service to reload the entire web page, resulting in an experience that had none of the snappy responsiveness of a Windows or Mac program.

With Gmail, Buchheit worked around HTML’s limitations by using highly interactive JavaScript code. That made it feel more like software than a sequence of web pages. Before long, the approach would get the moniker AJAX, which stood for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML; today, it’s how all web apps are built. But when Gmail was pioneering the technique, it wasn’t clear that it was going to work.

The ambitious use of JavaScript “was another thing most people thought was a pretty bad idea,” Buchheit says. “One of the problems we had was that the web browsers weren’t very good back then…We were afraid we’d crash browsers and nobody would want to use it.”

The more JavaScript that Gmail used, the more sophisticated it could get. One of its flagship features ended up being that the messages in your inbox weren’t strictly sequential. Instead, with the aim of making it easier to follow discussion threads, all the messages in a given back-and-forth string were collected into a cluster called a conversation, with any duplicated text automatically concealed. From a design perspective, says Fox, “trying to make it so that conversations were obvious to the user and intuitive was the largest challenge.”

“We weren’t going to plaster it with banners. We committed to that from pretty early on.”Then there was Gmail’s business model. Some within Google advocated for it being a paid service, but Buchheit and others wanted the service to reach as many people as possible, which was an argument for it being free and supported by advertising. With other free email offerings of the time, that meant flashy graphical banner ads–the antithesis of the unobtrusive little text ads which, then as now, accompanied Google search results.

“We weren’t going to plaster [Gmail] with banners,” says Rakowski. “We committed to that from pretty early on.” Instead, Gmail got little text ads of its own, automatically keyed to words in the text of a user’s email. In an example Google used early on to explain the system, two ads for ticket agencies were displayed alongside a conversation that mentioned a Beach Boys concert.

As with other aspects of Gmail, it wasn’t a given that the plan to monetize it through text ads would work. “I remember trying to model out how valuable each user would be in terms of advertising,” remembers Rakowski. “We had no idea.”

Advertising wasn’t just a math problem. Other email services already scanned the text of incoming messages, to check for spam and viruses, for instance. But doing the same thing for advertising purposes was something new, and Google knew that some people might be creeped out by any tangible evidence that their messages had been read, even if the one doing the reading was a machine.

“We thought pretty hard before doing what we did,” says Harik. “We thought, is this thing a perceived privacy violation or a real one? We decided it would be an issue of perception.”

Going Public

For much of its development, Gmail had been a skunkworks project, kept secret even from most people within Google. “It wasn’t even guaranteed to launch–we said that it has to reach a bar before it’s something we want to get out there,” says Fox.

By early 2004, however, Gmail worked, and almost everybody was using it to access the company’s internal email system. It was time to settle on a schedule for a public announcement. The date the company selected was April 1.

Copernicus Center
Copernicus Center, the lunar research lab Google also announced on April 1, 2004 Google

That wasn’t just another random day on the calendar. Google had begun its tradition of April Fools’ mischief in 2000; the company had a hoax in the works for 2004, involving an announcement that it was hiring for a new research center on the moon. It figured, correctly, that announcing Gmail at the same time would lead some people to think that the announcement was a prank. Especially since the 1GB of space was unimaginably ginormous by 2004 standards.

“Sergey was most excited about it,” says Rakowski. “The ultimate April Fools’ joke was to launch something kind of crazy on April 1st and have it still exist on April 2nd.”

“If you’re far enough ahead that people can’t figure out if you’re joking, you know you’ve innovated.”The team had to scamper to make the deadline, and in fact, Gmail wasn’t really ready to go: Google didn’t have the awesome server capacity in place to give millions of people reliable email and a gigabyte of space apiece. “We had a Catch-22 when we launched,” Buchheit remembers. “We couldn’t get many machines because people thought we couldn’t launch, but we couldn’t launch because we didn’t have machines.”

In the end, Gmail ended up running on three hundred old Pentium III computers nobody else at Google wanted. That was sufficient for the limited beta rollout the company planned, which involved giving accounts to a thousand outsiders, allowing them to invite a couple of friends apiece, and growing slowly from there.

As news about Gmail dribbled out on March 31 and continued into April Fools’ Day, the reaction did, indeed, include a fair amount of disbelief. “If you’re far enough ahead that people can’t figure out if you’re joking, you know you’ve innovated,” says Harik. “Primarily, journalists would call us and say ‘We need to know if you’re just kidding, or if this is real.’ That was fun.”

Once it was clear that Gmail was the real deal, the invitations became a hot property. The limited rollout had been born of necessity, but “it had a side effect,” says Harik. “Everyone wanted it even more. It was hailed as one of the best marketing decisions in tech history, but it was a little bit unintentional.”

Gmail’s use of JavaScript made features like auto-completion of contact names as you typed possible Google

Bidding for invites on eBay sent prices shooting up to $150 and beyond; sites such as Gmail Swap emerged to match up those with invites with those who desperately wanted them. Having a Hotmail or Yahoo Mail email address was slightly embarrassing; having a Gmail one meant that you were part of a club most people couldn’t get into.

Despite the publicity windfall, Buchheit sounds a tad wistful about the situation, even a decade later: “I think Gmail could have grown a lot more in the first year if we’d had more resources.”

The aura of exclusivity and experimentation stuck to Gmail long after it did grow huge. Google kept increasing the number of invites each user could issue, but it didn’t open up the service to all comers until Valentine’s Day, 2007. And Gmail wore its Beta label like a badge of honor until July of 2009. (The company finally removed it as a sop to cautious business customers, who didn’t want to sign up for something that sounded unfinished.)

Gmail’s use of advertising keyed to the contents of email messages raised hackles–maybe more so than Google had anticipated. Some critics thought it invaded the privacy of the sender; others felt that the recipient was the party whose rights had been violated. Fear of inappropriate placements—such as pharmaceutical ads next to an email concerning suicide—was a common theme. And some people had reasonable questions about what Google would do with the data it collected to serve the ads, and how long it would preserve it.

Gmail’s limited release—the same thing that had some people giddily competing for invites on eBay—left others developing an antipathy to the service based on assumptions rather than reality. “I went to dinner parties at friends of friends,” says Rakowski. “People would talk about Gmail, not knowing that I worked on it, understanding it incorrectly because they hadn’t had a chance to try it.”

Gmail ads
The annotated screenshot Google used in 2004 to explain how Gmail’s ads worked Google

The reaction from privacy groups got ugly fast. On April 6, 31 organizations and advocates co-signed a letter to Page and Brin, raising a gaggle of concerns about Gmail, calling it a bad precedent and asking that the service be suspended until their concerns could be addressed. “Scanning personal communications in the way Google is proposing is letting the proverbial genie out of the bottle,” they warned.

Right in Google’s own backyard, California State Senator Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) sent Google a letter of her own, calling Gmail a “disaster of enormous proportions, for yourself, and for all of your customers.” She went on to draft a bill requiring, among other things, that any company that wanted to scan an email message for advertising purposes get the consent of the person who sent it. (By the time the California Senate passed the law, cooler heads prevailed and that obligation had been eliminated.)

Google reacted to the controversy over Gmail’s ads by listening to the critics, detailing its policies on the Gmail site and spotlighting the work of journalists who thought the controversy was silly. It didn’t cave to those who demanded fundamental change to the service, and pushed back at what it argued was irresponsible behavior by some of the service’s foes:

When we began the limited test of Gmail, we expected our service would be the subject of intense interest. What we did not anticipate was the reaction from some privacy activists, editorial writers and legislators, many of whom condemned Gmail without first seeing it for themselves. We were surprised to find that some of these activists and organizations refused to even talk to us, or to try first-hand the very service they were criticizing. As we read news stories about Gmail, we have regularly noticed factual errors and out-of-context quotations. Misinformation about Gmail has spread across the web.

That’s unfortunate for Google, but why should you care? Because it may affect your right to make your own decisions about how you read your mail. This misinformation threatens to eliminate legitimate and useful consumer choices by means of legislation aimed at innocuous and privacy-aware aspects of our service, while simultaneously deflecting attention from the real privacy issues inherent to all email systems.

“Ten years from now, we’ll probably look back at the Gmail dust-up with…befuddlement,” wrote Slate’s Paul Boutin, one of the journalists whose pro-Gmail stances Google linked to in its response to the privacy flap. Mostly, we do: In 2012, the last time Google issued an official count, Gmail had 425 million active users, which suggests that discomfort with its approach to advertising is a minority view. The issue has never vanished entirely, though. It’s still in the courts, and Microsoft continues to tell consumers that it’s a reason to use Outlook.com, Hotmail’s successor.

A Decade Later

One remarkable thing about Gmail that wasn’t obvious in 2004: Its creators built it to last. The current incarnations of Outlook.com and Yahoo Mail have nothing to do with the email services Microsoft and Yahoo offered 10 years ago. But Gmail–despite having added features more or less continuously and gone through some significant redesigns–is still Gmail.

“I can’t think of another app that has existed so close to its original form for 10 years,” says Fox. “Someone who had only used Gmail in its first iteration and suddenly used it today would still understand Gmail. They’d know how to use it for virtually everything they’d want to do.”

“What makes the product what it is really comes from the continuous focus on the types of problems we’re trying to solve for our users,” says Alex Gawley, Gmail’s current product manager. “If you look back to 2004, the big problems email users were facing were having to delete messages for lack of storage, not being able to find messages and crazy amounts of spam.” Today, the big opportunities include making Gmail more action-oriented–which Google is doing with features such as live flight status information displayed within messages–and reimagining it for mobile devices such as phones and tablets. Gawley says challenges like those are enough to keep the Gmail team busy for the next half-decade.

Of course, no matter how inventive Gmail remains, it’s now the establishment. When newfangled apps and services such as Mailbox and Alto come along, the experience they’re reimagining is one created by Gmail, more than any other single email client, over the last decade. The creators of any new service would be thrilled to do to Google what Google did to Microsoft and Yahoo in 2004.

Paul Buchheit
Gmail’s creator Paul Buchheit in March 2014 Annie Harper

Then again, some of the issues email still has may not lend themselves to the sort of problem-solving Silicon Valley knows how to tackle. When I dropped Buchheit a line at his Gmail address asking to chat with him for this story, I got an automated message explaining that he was on hiatus from email—checking in, but only sporadically. Did Gmail’s creator think that email was broken all over again?

”The problem with email now is that the social conventions have gotten very bad,” Buchheit told me once we’d made contact. “There’s a 24/7 culture, where people expect a response. It doesn’t matter that it’s Saturday at 2 a.m.–people think you’re responding to email. People are no longer going on vacation. People have become slaves to email.”

“It’s not a technical problem. It can’t be solved with a computer algorithm. It’s more of a social problem.”

Sounds like the man who fixed email in 2004 is saying that the only folks who can fix it in 2014 and beyond are those of us who use it–and sometimes abuse it–it every day.

TIME Gay Rights

OkCupid Asks Firefox Users to Use Another Browser in Gay-Rights Protest

The popular online-dating website wants its users to avoid using Mozilla in light of the company's new CEO's 2008 donation in support of Proposition 8 in California

OkCupid is urging Mozilla Firefox users not to use the browser out of protest over Mozilla’s new CEO, whom OkCupid called an “opponent of gay rights.”

Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who was hired on March 24, has faced scrutiny for having made a $1,000 donation in 2008 in support of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in the state. OkCupid prompted visitors to use alternative browsers in a letter that appeared only to Firefox users on OkCupid’s site on Monday.

“We’ve devoted the last 10 years to bring people — all people — together,” OkCupid’s letter reads. “If individuals like Eich had their way, then roughly 8% of the relationships we’ve worked so hard to bring together would be illegal.”

A representative of Mozilla denounced the protest in an emailed statement to TIME. “Mozilla supports equality for all, including marriage equality for LGBT couples. No matter who you are or who you love, everyone deserves the same rights and to be treated equally,” the statement read. “OkCupid never reached out to us to let us know of their intentions, nor to confirm facts. “

[The Verge]

TIME Patent Wars

The Apple vs. Samsung Patent War Continues, but the Stakes Are Lower

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with Apple and Samsung logos as he poses with a Samsung Galaxy S4 in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica
Dado Ruvic / Reuters

The look and feel of Samsung's hardware isn't an issue this time around.

Apple is once again trying to extract some cash from Samsung’s Android phone business in a new patent infringement trial, which kicks off today.

Many of the headlines have focused on Google’s potential involvement. Because Samsung says four of Apple’s five infringement claims relate to general Android features, Google engineers will reportedly take the stand to testify in Samsung’s defense. That could make the latest case even more of a Google vs. Apple proxy battle than previous Apple lawsuits against Android vendors. (Apple has never sued Google directly, possibly because it’s harder to claim damages on a company that licenses its Android software for free.)

While the potential for Google testimony is noteworthy, what strikes me even more is how mundane this Apple-Samsung lawsuit is compared to the first one, which reached a jury verdict in 2012.

Apple’s original lawsuit against Samsung was unique because it included design patents. Unlike the lawsuits Apple has filed against HTC, Motorola and other vendors, Apple argued that Samsung was ripping off the look and feel of the iPhone and iPad, not just a few software features.

(A common misinterpretation, by the way, is that Apple was claiming ownership over obvious design elements, such as rounded rectangles. In reality, Apple claimed that the way many of those individual elements came together had been copied by Samsung.)

A jury eventually found Samsung guilty of infringing on Apple’s design patents for smartphones, but not for tablets. But as I noted back in 2012, Samsung had already hedged its bets at that point. The company drastically changed the look of its phones starting with the Galaxy S III, so they hardly resemble the iPhone.

In terms of actual consumer impact, this was arguably the most noticeable outcome from the original case, and it happened long before the trial wrapped up. Older phones that were found to have infringed on Apple’s designs were already outdated when the trial was over, and Apple has failed to get them banned anyway.

This time, Apple isn’t making any trade dress claims. Instead, the five patents deal specifically with software features, including slide to unlock, background data syncing, auto-complete, universal search and turning certain messages data into links. For these alleged infringements, Apple is seeking about $2 billion in damages, according to the Wall Street Journal — roughly $500,000 less than what Apple sought in the first trial.

If you’re a typical Samsung user, the dollar figures don’t matter much. Even if Apple wins, the two companies will spend years arguing over money owed — as they still are for the original case — and the final amount will be a fraction of what both companies make in any given quarter.

What matters more is the potential impact on Samsung’s products. But as we’ve seen in other cases, software patents can often be worked around in ways that are barely noticeable. For instance, Samsung dealt with Apple’s “overscroll bounce” effect in the 2012 lawsuit by using a different visual effect as you scroll past the boundary of a web page. That same year, HTC worked around an Apple patent governing what happens when you tap on a phone number, taking users into the phone’s dialer instead of showing a pop-up dialog box. Whereas the physical design of a phone must be planned months or years in advance, a software update can be delivered instantly at no cost, so there’s less risk of future products being jeopardized.

Perhaps just as importantly, this won’t be a case where Apple can embarrass Samsung in the court of public opinion, as it did last time when Samsung’s lawyers couldn’t tell an iPad from a Galaxy Tab. That’s a design issue, and it won’t come up in this case. So while the dollar figures are similar this time around, there’s a lot less on the line.

TIME Smartphones

Well-Lit Selfies: Fancy Phone Features Front-Facing Flash

The Lumigon T2 HD Android phone features a front-facing flash and is water-resistant. Lumigon

Why should the world only get to see your drop-dead gorgeous selfies when you have adequate light?

Do you have at least $1,000 to spend on a smartphone? Are you good-looking? If so, congrats, for starters.

Second, this fancy Android smartphone features a front-facing flash for its front-facing camera.

Why should the world only get to see your drop-dead gorgeous selfies when you have adequate light? You spend a lot of time in exclusive, sexily-lit clubs, yes? They’re too dark for selfies! Until now, that is.

On paper, it could be – could be – argued that the Lumigon T2 HD is slightly underpowered, with a dual-core processor and a 720p screen bobbing around in a sea of quad-core, 1080p competitors. That all-important front-facing camera is only a 2.4-megapixel jobber, too, although as every savvy shopper knows, megapixels aren’t everything.

Those qualms aside, the phone has a few tricks up its immaculately-pressed sleeve. It’s water resistant, which comes in handy considering all those exclusive, sexy, oops-I-spilled-my-drink clubs you frequent. And it’s ensconced in stainless steel and damage-resistant glass, which comes in handy if you drop the phone while showing it off to all the lesser people in the already-exclusive club. Oh, and it’s dust resistant. Let’s get real, though: You have people to handle your dust.

The phone also comes with a dock that can be programmed to turn off the phone’s visual and audible notifications when it’s docked, so you can make sure to sleep in without being bothered.

Pricing will start at around $1,000 (unlocked, off contract), and you’ll need to order it from Denmark when it’s available sometime in the second quarter.

If you’re looking for another phone with a front-facing flash, check out the Acer Liquid E3. Note, too, that there are so-so workarounds for the iPhone and other Android phones that basically entail blasting you with the white light of your phone’s screen as a photo’s being taken.

(Side note: I just had to add “selfies” to my blogging software’s dictionary. The end is near, friends.)

Lumigon T2 HD [Product Page via Digital Trends]

TIME Video Games

Dark Souls 2’s De-Spawns Are Either Game-Breaking Godawful or Inspired Genius

Bandai Namco

The sequel to one of the hardest games ever made twists the knife.

Dark Souls 2 is a lesser game than Dark Souls. Or maybe that should read greater. It depends what you’re looking for. I’m not sure what that is for me, 15 hours in.

I’m merely level 36, and I’ve only pulled one stat out of the teens. I feel a little like my 21-month-old son, tottering around the house in exploration mode, smacking into things and falling down, trying to make sense of the world with my babbling proto-linguistic toddler-speak.

As Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls, the latter hasn’t prepared me for all the new challenges on tap here: the hollow soldiers with estoc and shield who assault in teams with brutally efficient and overlapping tactics, the Varangian sailors with devastating four-hit combos, the cyclopean all-reaching ogres whose immensity belies their ability to pancake me lighting-quick. That’s also a hallmark of a Souls game: Each encounter feels new, a lesson unto itself instead of other games’ n + 1.

So far series newcomers Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura have recaptured most of what makes Dark Souls feel like Dark Souls, scaffolding to foundation, the world swathed in plaintive John Barry-ish piano strains, melancholy lighting and baffling alien architecture. That gothic opening sequence might be a riff on Poe’s House of Usher (only here the protagonist leaps into the tarn-vortex of his own volition, poor fool). And all the keystone From Software themes take their bow: the obscure narrator, the melodramatic auguring, the sense that someone shook a box of Boschian refrigerator sentence-magnets to cobble together what passes for a story.

Sidebar: Remember the old NES game Wizards and Warriors (by Rare, incidentally — yes, that Rare)? Indulge me. The outset of Dark Souls 2 made me think about that game for the first time in years. It’s the trees. In Wizards and Warriors, you play a knight leaping between sawed-off branches like Li Mu Bai in plate armor, occasionally ducking inside their trunks to scrounge for treasure and battle creepy bugs, birds and spiders. Dark Souls 2‘s beginning feels like a darker, weirder version of that level — a series of places (linked through arthritic wood-skyscrapers) that make no logical sense. All that’s missing are the David Wise tunes.

I love that about games like this. It’s that angle that has nothing to do with the game’s game-ness, but without which the game wouldn’t be Dark Souls. The sunsets that last forever. The distant, bruised, Mordor-like clouds. The weirdly-lit corridors (with no obvious light source) that always creep me out. The subterranean rivers kicking off a scrim of mist. The fiery pits housing who-knows-what that put me in mind of the first time I played Colossal Cave Adventure on a Commodore B-128 and stumbled into a room, described solely in text, that felt like peeping the devil’s own playground.

There’s a lot of talk about “placeness” with virtual reality back in the news. It’s an aspect of gaming that gamers tend to gloss over in the conventional obsession with rules and mechanical minutia. It makes me wish we had a better, less reductive label for games than “games,” though those labels are coming as surely as gaming’s on the verge of being subsumed by technology that’ll bulldoze the sort of arbitrary distinctions we make today, like “genre” and “platform.”

But since this is 2014 and games are still treated as the sum of their mechanics, let’s talk about one that’s changed significantly in Dark Souls 2. It’s perhaps the most controversial change of all, and I had no idea it was coming. Five hours in, I assumed I’d found a bug. The hollow soldiers haunting the fire-lit dungeons below a castle tower I’d been plumbing suddenly vanished — first one, then another, then another still. I ran a search engine query and discovered a bunch of people talking about de-spawning, which is basically how Dark Souls 2 deals with soul farming.

Demon’s Souls mitigated soul-farming by forcing you to return to its nexus to re-spawn enemies. There was a forced pause to reset things, a farming deterrent premised on those load times coupled with fewer travel points. Dark Souls‘ instantaneous reboots and numerous bonfires, by contrast, opened up a world of farming possibilities. The Undead Burg bonfire was basically my home away from home well past the point I should have lingered there, level-wise. I’d just fire up the game and do laps: tag the archer, then the guys charging up the stairs, then the spearmen across the way, then the trio hunkering in a room across the bridge, then the guys tossing firebombs off the roof, and so on. I must have done that circuit hundreds if not thousands of times (and arguably way over-leveled for the area) before moving on.

Not so with Dark Souls 2, where enemies only spawn a fixed number of times before vanishing for good (a little more than a dozen times in my experience, though this varies). That means you have to be pretty darned good (and consistently so) to play without getting yourself into a difficulty rut — a problem I’m seeing more than a few have run into, reading message boards and some of the more insightful off-the-beaten-path reviews.

Not me — at least not yet. I’d estimate I’ve lost maybe 10,000 souls overall to the void — a pittance in the grand scheme — but I’ve yet to feel under-leveled. The game also seems to be unfolding a little more logically: If you take Dark Souls 2 on its new terms, it starts to feel compartmentalized, like you’re checking off areas and actually progressing through them instead of blinking in and out of something immutable. Instead of under-farming or over-farming an area, I’ll work it until it’s clear of antagonists — what some might call a “genocide run,” if you will, though exterminating everything would have to include non-hostiles, and I’ve left merchants and other potential allies alone.

The downside to de-spawning is that some of the risk is gone. Leaving enemies behind means leaving souls behind, and since the total number of souls on the table has a ceiling, you’re inclined to grab them all before moving on. The last thing you want to do is stick your soul-laden neck into a newer, higher-difficulty area, only to lose a clutch of hard-earned souls for good. At risk of losing so much so permanently, you’ll hoard like you never had to in Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls: rarely venturing ahead, calculating the trajectory of level progression to ensure you’re spending every last soul on items or attributes, playing a hyper-cautious perfectionist game to avoid the hypothetical under-leveled, soul-exhausted nightmare scenario that could put you off playing further.

There are ways around this, or so I’m told. You can enlist others to help if you’re stuck, and I’m seeing something about a “bonfire ascetic” that supposedly restocks the creature pool, but I’m not sure where to get one and I’m told the re-spawns are twice as difficult, as if replaying the game at a higher difficulty setting.

But on balance, Dark Souls 2 forces you to care infinitely more about gleaning every last soul, the upside being a sense of structured progress that’s absent from the prior two games; the downside being a stronger sense of linearity coupled to even greater anxiety about throwing your play-through off the rails. In other words, the stakes are perhaps the highest they’ve ever been here, which is ironic considering all the worry some had about Dark Souls 2 dialing things down to expand its audience.

At this point, the game still seems to be “working” for me. I’m moving forward at a comfortable pace and finding the challenge feels about right. De-spawns also function as a sort of historical record of your play-style, each enemy decoupling from the world in tandem with your dispatch strategy. More remote enemies linger, say archers along battlements or enemies hidden in spots you take longer (and multiple bonfire rests) to find. Wrapping up an area reminds you how you went about prosecuting it, in other words.

The way my brain organizes information, I almost prefer this approach to Dark Souls‘ and certainly Demon’s Souls’. But ask me again in another 10 or 20 hours, after I’ve had a chance to throw down with some real troublemakers: I hear the three Ruin Sentinels in The Lost Bastille slot somewhere between extortionate and impossible.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME mobile games

Candy Crush Maker King Is Going on a Massive Hiring Spree

A mascot dressed as a character from the mobile game "Candy Crush Saga" walks the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during the IPO of Mobile game maker King Digital Entertainment Plc
A mascot dressed as a character from the mobile game "Candy Crush Saga" walks the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during the IPO of Mobile game maker King Digital Entertainment Plc March 26, 2014. Brendan McDermid—Reuters

On the heels of its disappointing IPO, Candy Crush Saga developer King Digital is going on a hiring spree as it tries to craft another hit game. The London-based game maker has listed about 165 job openings on its corporate website in locations around the world, including Stockholm, Malta and San Francisco. If all the job listings are for new positions and not replacements of current employees, they would constitute a 25 percent increase in King’s workforce.

Primarily, King is seeking designers and engineers to help create new games. The company tests out new game concepts on its website, royalgames.com, then adapts the most popular titles to apps for Facebook or smartphones. Overall KIng has made more than 180 games in its 11-year existence, but Candy Crush is by far the most popular.

So far Wall Street seems unconvinced that King has another hit on the way. While King is extremely profitable, earning more than $500 million in 2013, 78 percent of the company’s gross bookings come from Candy Crush. Hit mobile games have a habit of fizzling out relatively quickly, and Candy Crush generated less revenue in the fourth quarter of 2013 than it did in the previous quarter. Despite King vowing to create a diverse portfolio of mobile games, the company’s shares fell 16 percent from their IPO price of $22.50 on Wednesday. King’s stock slid further through the rest of the week. The IPO performance was reminiscent of Zynga, another maker of casual games that tried to parlay a mega-popular title (Farmville) into a big stock market debut but stumbled out of the gate.

TIME Social Networking

Share Too Much? Facebook Is Giving ‘Privacy Checkups’ to Certain Users

Facebook, in an effort to educate about the different privacy options available on the social network, has begun rolling out a ‘Privacy Checkup’ initiative to select users of the site.

According to those familiar with the new feature, you’ll only get a Privacy Checkup if your account is set to post publicly – that is, if your settings have you sharing beyond your immediate group of Facebook friends. Upon sharing with the public, your account may get the following advisory pop-up:

It reads: “Sorry to interrupt. You haven’t changed who can see your posts lately, so we just wanted to make sure you’re sharing this post with the right audience. (Your current setting is Public, though you can change this whenever you post.)” The pop-up then gives you the option to quickly change your privacy settings to limit the post to just your Facebook friends.

Facebook has no doubt learned that its customer base no longer wishes to share everything with the world. By making it easier to control who sees what you post, Facebook ensures you keep posting. Remember, what matters most to Facebook is not how much you share with your friends, but how much you share with the social network itself. The more Facebook knows about you, the more money it makes selling ads.

Regardless of whether your account is chosen for a Privacy Checkup, Techlicious recommends taking your family’s privacy in your own hands. Make a habit of reviewing your Facebook privacy settings once or twice a year. If you have kids, make a clear privacy policy for your family. Teach your kids what’s acceptable to be shared and with whom. Social media can be a lot of fun, but it’s important to remember: One wrong status update could seriously damage you or your child’s future.

To learn more about managing your privacy on Facebook, check out Techlicious’ just-updated comprehensive guide to Facebook privacy settings.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Video Games

Welcome Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s New Xbox-Everything Honcho

Xbox E3 2013 Media Briefing
Phil Spencer on stage at the Xbox E3 2013 media briefing. Casey Rodgers / Invision

Spencer will assume control of both Microsoft Studios and the Xbox platform along with Xbox Live.

A few weeks ago, Xbox Chief Product Officer Marc Whitten said he was leaving Microsoft (after helming the division for some 14 years) for a similar position with Sonos. Now we know who’ll replace him: Phil Spencer, formerly head of Microsoft Studios, will take up Whitten’s old post effective immediately.

Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, who himself recently transitioned to a new leadership role, replacing Steve Ballmer as the company’s CEO in February, outlined Spencer’s new position in an email to employees this morning.

It sounds like Spencer will have control of both Microsoft Studios and Xbox as well as Xbox Live development teams, so basically everything to do with gaming, plus the Xbox brand’s growing non-gaming presence, consolidated under one leader:

In this new job, Phil will lead the Xbox, Xbox Live, Xbox Music and Xbox Video teams, and Microsoft Studios. Combining all our software, gaming and content assets across the Xbox team under a single leader and aligning with the OSG team will help ensure we continue to do great work across the Xbox business, and bring more of the magic of Xbox to all form factors, including tablets, PCs and phones.

According to Spencer’s Xbox bio (I’m not sure how up-to-date it is), he’s been with Microsoft for over 25 years and worked on a variety of products, including the old CD-based Encarta encyclopedia, Microsoft Money, Microsoft Works and Microsoft Picture It!. He worked as general manager of Microsoft Studios in 2008 before stepping up to corporate VP in 2009. Microsoft Studios is the company’s game development division, founded in 2002, and responsible for developing or publishing (or buying outright to continue developing and publishing) everything from Fable and Halo to Gears of War and Forza Motorsport.

Here’s Spencer writing about his promotion on Xbox Wire:

As Satya noted earlier today, I will now be leading the Xbox, Xbox Live, and creative teams including Xbox Music, Xbox Video and Microsoft Studios as we deliver the next generation of games and entertainment. Combining these teams will strengthen the connection between some of the world’s most innovative creators and those building the Xbox itself. I am incredibly proud of the talented Xbox employees around the world and believe, like they do, in the power of technology to bring games and entertainment to life across console, PC, tablet and mobile devices. It’s been a remarkable year for Xbox and I am honored to lead the team at this incredible time for Microsoft and the games industry.

You could argue there’s no better choice to helm Xbox than a guy who’s been plugged into the software side (and worked in it himself) for so many years. Getting software right is Platform-Driving 101, and having someone with the experience and internal relationships necessary to streamline those aspects of the process sounds like a no-brainer, in theory. While it’s not the same role, if you look at a game designer like Mark Cerny on Sony’s side of the fence — he’s the lead architect for PlayStation 4 — you’re arguably seeing the results of that emphasis on developer needs and relationships manifesting in all the PS4’s developer plaudits and ballooning software catalog.

You could also argue Nadella’s decision to give Spencer control of more of the pie indicates his allegiance to the Xbox brand, not his proclivity to spin it off, as many earlier this year suggested he might. Unless Microsoft’s looking to get out of the software biz somehow, which seems very unlikely, I’m not sure it makes sense to consolidate like this with an eye to furthering the Xbox brand on “all form factors, including tablets, PCs and phones.”

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Technology & Media

Microsoft Is About to Blow Up ATMs All Over the Country

The Microsoft Windows XP log-in screen is displayed on a lap
Chris Ratcliffe—Bloomberg/Getty Images

This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. The article below was originally published at Fortune.com.

After April 8th, 2014, Microsoft will end support, including automatic security patches, for its 13-year-old Windows XP operating system. This may sound like an inconvenience primarily for government agencies and aging uncles, but another major set of Windows XP users are the automated teller machines and credit card sales systems that handle billions of dollars of transactions daily.

While major retailers and banks are likely to be well prepared for the end of XP, financial systems based on the software are also in the hands of a far-reaching hodgepodge of independent ATM operators and small businesses. Despite ample warning, industry analysts and insiders agree that high cost and inconvenience will keep plenty of these smaller players running outdated software for many months to come — with serious implications for the security of their systems.

Jerry Nevins, co-owner of the Kansas City cocktail bar Snow & Co., is close to the dilemma. Snow & Co. bought a point of sale system less than a year ago from the payments servicer Micros — only to be told within a few months of the need for an upgrade to Windows 7, at a cost of $1,700 for the single-store system. Luckily, Snow & Co. was still under a service agreement, so its upgrade was free. But as Nevins puts it, “If you’re a small business, an unexpected $1,700 might be like, eh, I’ll go ahead and take my chances.” Moreover, Nevins describes a “huge line” of Micros customers waiting for an upgrade. He’s crossing his fingers that Snow & Co. will be upgraded before the April 8 deadline.

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Costs to retail credit card processors will vary widely, says John Berkeley of Mercury Payment Systems. “If you have the right hardware you can just upgrade the OS, but for some merchants upgrading from XP to Windows 7 can mean all new hardware,” likely costing much more than that $1,700.

The challenges of upgrading becomes even bigger in the case of ATMs. ATM manufacturers are offering software upgrades for machines still based on XP — though some of those have been available for less than a month. But the cost to upgrade can be staggering.

According to Jay Weber, vice president in charge of North American Debit and ATM systems for FIS Global, “an ATM machine purchased in the last five years . . . would only need a software upgrade of $4,000 to 5,000 per machine.” That software cost is so high in part because much specialized software written for Windows XP can’t be easily ported to a new operating system. But ATMs 10 years old or more would need to be completely replaced, and Weber says that new high-end ATMs can cost at least $50,000 to $60,000 per device.

ATM operators and business owners are largely being left to decide on their own whether to upgrade or not, says Weber. “Organizations are trying to look at the investment of the upgrade and weight it against their perceived risk” — and many seem to be ready to take their chances. “[April 9th] is going to come and go, and there are going to be some merchants who haven’t done it yet,” says Berkeley. Weber speculates that “it’s going to be a trickle approach, a slower ramp up,” with many systems going without an upgrade — and remaining officially insecure — through the end of 2014.

MORE: Can Microsoft make enterprise search better?

This hesitancy may be worsened because operators are getting mixed messages about their risk. The Payments Card Industry Security Standards Council has issued public warnings about the need for retailers to upgrade their point of sale systems, but their current set of standards, which are used to determine eligibility to operate on credit card networks, do not require it. And Weber himself seems sanguine: “The risk is hard to quantify. There’s a lot of technology in place in the marketplace to help mitigate the risk,” such as the “fairly closed telecom environment” that most payment systems operate on.

But Bogdan Botezatu, Senior E-Threat Analyst for the antimalware software company Bitdefender, couldn’t disagree more. He talks about the issue with the barely-suppressed terror of a father watching his teenage son drive solo for the first time. “They’re not panicky,” he says, “and actually that makes me panicky.”

Botezatu, who haunts underground hacking forums to keep an eye on looming security threats, claims that hackers are gearing up to raid suddenly insecure XP machines the minute Microsoft support ends. “When an operating system is announced as reaching its end of life, [hackers] are frantically looking for exploits, because then they can use it indefinitely,” he says. “It’s the holy grail of malware.”

To take fullest advantage of the situation, black-market vendors selling new XP exploits have been stockpiling them, waiting to release them until after Microsoft is no longer monitoring and repairing security flaws. Though third-party security firms will continue to update antimalware programs for XP, users not running or updating such software could be permanently vulnerable to an ever-growing set of exploits. Mercury Payment Systems’ John Berkeley confirms that “If a hacker discovers [a vulnerability] a month or two after the end of [XP support], they have more time to exploit that.”

MORE: Microsoft culture must change, chairman says

These exploits could range from stealing credit card information from small vendors to even more dramatic forms of theft, many of them easily circumventing external security measures such as the semi-closed payments network. Botezatu says there have been reports of an ATM exploit through a mobile phone connected through an ATM’s card reader. He also cites a legendary stunt by the security expert Barnaby Jack, at the Black Hat security conference in 2010, demonstrated a “Jackpotting” hack that easily emptied an XP-based ATM machine. According to Botezatu, Jack, who died in 2013, never revealed the nature of this exploit, meaning that it could remain an unpatched vulnerability in XP-based machines.

Most troubling of all, Botezatu predicts that unsecured XP machines of all kinds will be compromised by hackers to form new botnets. This kind of system, in which hacked systems’ processors are put to new tasks unbeknownst to their owners, can be used for everything from massive Denial of Service attacks to mining cryptocurrency, and would add substantially to the insecurity of the internet as a whole. “I see a lot of trouble,” Botezatu warns.

Whether April 9th brings a plague of cash-spewing ATMs, zombie PCs and thieving credit-card readers remains to be seen. But Botezatu sounds exasperated that he even has to consider these scenarios. “It’s an operating system that was released 13 years ago. Everyone should have started migrating two or three years ago” to avoid the mad rush and risks that come with the end of support. He hopes, at least, that this episode will motivate today’s users to think about the future.

“This is going to happen soon with other operating systems,” Botezatu says. “You should start upgrading from Windows 7 now.”

TIME Gadgets

Danger! Computer Simulates 1,500 People Walking and Texting at a Busy Intersection


So here’s what would apparently happen if 1,500 people all started crossing the street at Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing while they were looking down at their phones.

You’ll notice a handful of things:

  • A total disregard for crosswalks! These mouth-breathers are just walking right out into the middle of everything.
  • Two of them just walk in place when they run into each other. The last time I did that, mall security Segwayed me out by my shirt collar.
  • One of the guys gets run into and then bows as though it’s his fault! Sack up, man!
  • Only one guy drops his phone, which seems really low for 15,000 hoopleheads all running into each other.
  • Two fall down and get right back up, all while still looking at their phones (probably accurate).
  • It takes an eternity for the street to clear when it’s the cars’ turn to go again (probably accurate), yet only a couple horns honk (maybe accurate in Japan; absolutely not accurate just about anywhere else).
  • The guy at the very end appears to fall down at the top of a subway entrance and, instead of getting back up, he’s does the Worm for a bit. I’d grab a simulated beer with that guy any day.

According to Kotaku, the video is a joint effort between one of Japan’s major wireless companies – NTT Docomo – and Aichi University of Technology, which cobbled the simulation together. The message? I can’t read Japanese, but I’ll bet it’s three-fold: Don’t text and walk, watch where you’re going, and remember that the Worm will never, ever, ever go out of style.

Computer Simulation of 1,500 People Looking at Smartphones and Walking [Kotaku]

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