Our picks: GeekWire’s favorite stories (and people) of 2011

Earlier this week, we listed your favorite stories of 2011 — the 100 most-popular news items, columns and features on GeekWire this year, based on your clicks. Now we’d like to share a list of our favorites, along with some behind-the-scenes details.

Here are the stories, and the characters, that stand out most in our minds as we look back on the past year.

Amazon’s first employee: Shel Kaphan

Shel Kaphan (Annie Laurie Malarkey Photo)

One of the great joys of being a professional journalist is the vantage point into amazing people and events, and the chance to tell stories that truly create a first draft of history. That’s how I felt one afternoon at a Queen Anne coffee shop as I sat down with Shel Kaphan, the first employee of Amazon.com.

Kaphan’s story had never been told, and I was honored to get the chance to hear the fascinating tale of how Amazon.com was born from the company’s first chief technology officer.

The interview spanned a number of topics, including insights into why Amazon.com located its headquarters in Seattle; some of the early technical challenges that occurred as the online bookseller’s business boomed; and Kaphan’s first impressions of a young Jeff Bezos. But I was most struck by the personal toll that working in the tech industry took on Kaphan, and some of the lingering issues that still exist between him and Bezos.

One of the longest pieces we’ve ever run on GeekWire, the interview with Kaphan was an opportunity for rare insights into one of the world’s most powerful technology companies.

–John Cook

Inside the mind of Ken Jennings

Ken Jennings in the KIRO-FM Studios (Erynn Rose Photo)

We had a great time talking with the Jeopardy! champion on the GeekWire radio show and podcast, and watching his mind work as we tried (unsuccessfully) to stump him that week’s installment of our Name that Tech Tune contest.

But the most eye-opening moment for me came after the show. Jennings had known the correct answer to the contest — that the music we played was the inspiration for the Nokia ringtone. However, it wasn’t enough for him to get it right. He wanted to know the history of the song, its composer and country of origin, and he peppered us with questions until we ended up doing a Google search to satisfy his curiosity.

Ken Jennings had identified something he didn’t know, and he needed to know it.

For me, that was the real insight into how great minds like his work.

– Todd Bishop

Steve Ballmer defends his job at a Rotary luncheon

Steve Ballmer at the Seattle Rotary

Leave it to the Rotarians to get a rise out of Steve Ballmer. The Microsoft CEO delivered a typical keynote talk at a Seattle Rotary luncheon in June, an environment one might think would be friendly turf. But things got really interesting when Assunta Ng, publisher of Northwest Asian Weekly, asked Ballmer during the Q&A portion of the talk what he thought of those critics who wanted him to step down.

What ensued was classic Ballmer, and we were there to capture the over-the-top remarks. “YOU TELL ME if I lack energy or conviction, or we’re not driving all the change we need to drive,” Ballmer yelled.

The best part was the reaction from the Rotarians — nervous laughter when the question was asked, and then loud applause after Ballmer’s response. Here’s the audio.

–John Cook

Bill Sleeper, 96-year-old geek

Bill Sleeper (Annie Laurie Malarkey Photo)

After years of helping my parents figure out their PCs and iPods (with varying degrees of patience on my part), I was completely blown away by 96-year-old Bill Sleeper as we sat one afternoon at the kitchen table inside his apartment at a retirement community north of Seattle.

A bona fide technology enthusiast, Bill spent the better part of two hours teaching me about all his favorite apps and gizmos, and giving me a hard time whenever he knew something about the iPhone that I didn’t — which was frequently. He is a character, a prankster and an all-around remarkable person with a true appreciation for the information-technology revolution, in part because he has watched it happen from the start.

If you missed it the first time, here’s our Geek of the Week profile of him.

– Todd Bishop

Paul Allen and Lesley Stahl

We survived our grilling by Lesley Stahl.

The release of Paul Allen’s memoir, Idea Man, resulted in two great experiences for us this year.

First, John and I were interviewed at length by 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl for the news magazine’s profile of the Microsoft co-founder. We didn’t end up making the broadcast, but we were in the online extras. And more than anything, as John wrote back in April, it was once-in-a-lifetime experience — even more remarkable for us because it came during GeekWire’s first month in business.

Second, I had the privilege of interviewing Allen about the book on stage at Seattle’s Town Hall. In front of the hometown crowd, Allen opened up with revealing stories about his life, his battles with cancer, his outlook on the technology industry, his relationship with Bill Gates, and what it’s like to play Pink Floyd in a submarine deep under the sea.

Watch and listen to highlights from the conversation in this KING-5 segment, this Seattle Channel program, and this special version of the GeekWire podcast.

– Todd Bishop

Mónica Guzmán and her bad-ass iPhone

One of the most rewarding parts of the past year for us was bringing Monica Guzman aboard as a regular columnist.

Monica has this great ability to find the deeper meaning in everyday experiences, and one of the best examples this year was her column in September about what happened when she left the iPhone on the top of the car. It’s a story of heartbreak, busted glass, technology and, in the end, a newfound faith in humanity.

Another great example, more recently, was Monica’s column about her grandpa joining Facebook, giving us all a good reminder of what social networking is really about.

See the full archive of Monica’s posts here, and look for more of her work on GeekWire in 2012.

Where have all the computer scientists gone?

Occasionally, we like to get on our soap boxes here at GeekWire. And one issue that resonated with us in 2011 was the need to improve the education system to produce more computer scientists and engineers. In other words, we need more geeks.

My idea: Either bring a world-class private technical university to the Seattle region, or build one ourselves. It’s a big and bold proposal. But that was actually how the idea came to be.

Earlier this year, I was asked by Seattle Magazine to come up with one “big idea” to fix Seattle. After a brainstorming session with some friends at a local tavern, the idea finally hit me. What Seattle really needs is more smart people. And the best way to get those folks here is through a world-class research university, one that would piggy-back on the success of the University of Washington.

The idea was on my mind because of efforts by New York City to build a new university, and the story of Western Washington University actually thinking about axing its computer science department this year. Look for us to keep exploring this issue in the new year.

– John Cook

Daniil Kulchenko, 15, sells his first startup

Daniil Kulchenko (Erynn Rose Photo)

We always like to report on interesting startup deals, and this one came with a fascinating twist: Daniil Kulchenko, a 15-year-old high school student from Kenmore, north of Seattle, announced the sale of his cloud-computing startup, Phenona, to Vancouver, B.C.-based ActiveState.

We had fun getting to know Daniil when we had him on as a guest on the GeekWire podcast, and we also recently featured him as one of our Newsmakers of 2011.

So how did a teenager come to create and sell his own tech startup? Check out this transcript of our interview with him.

Frank Catalano and the hidden price of Spotify

Longtime technology writer Frank Catalano has a talent for pointing out the things we technology users really should be paying attention to, and making a larger point in the process.

One of our favorite examples from this past year was his widely read column for GeekWire on the “Hidden Price of Free” — all of the non-monetary costs, such as time, pain and bandwidth that technology companies extract from us in exchange for access to their ostensibly free-of-charge products and services. In particular, Frank touched a nerve in that column with his realization that Spotify leverages its users’ network connections to take some of the load off its own servers in the process of streaming songs to other users.

Turns out lots of other people hadn’t know that, either, and the column caused a big stir as a result.

Be sure to check out all of Frank’s GeekWire columns in this archive.

Amazon.com’s mysterious lockers

We love it when technology intersects with the “real world,” which is one of the reasons we had so much fun digging into the story of the mysterious Amazon.com delivery lockers that started popping up, unannounced and unexplained, across the Seattle region this fall.

After news of the lockers first surfaced, John and his 2-year-old son made it a weekend project to track down the first of them, at a 7-Eleven in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Later the lockers were quietly activated.

As we noted at the time, it was like something out of a science fiction novel, with mysterious contraptions showing up inexplicably in random locations, awaiting commands from the mother ship to carry out some master plan. And finally, the lockers were put into use, and we got to conduct what we believe was the first public test of the system — buying a package of batteries and getting them delivered to a 7-Eleven on Queen Anne Hill.

No, it wasn’t the most momentous tech news of the year, but it was pretty intriguing, and most of all, a ton of fun.

– Todd Bishop

Steve Jobs memorial in Seattle

It was pure coincidence that the Apple store at Seattle’s University Village was closed for renovation when Steve Jobs died in October. But the boarded-up store gave people mourning the Apple co-founder’s passing a a great, big black canvas to write their remembrances and tributes.

We ended up spending the better part of the afternoon there, capturing videos and pictures, and talking with people who came to pay their respects. They represented a wide cross-section of the population, people young and old, and from many different walks of life.

To me, that illustrated how significant technology has become in our lives, and how much Jobs shaped how we used it.

– Todd Bishop

Valve and the economics of video games

Industry conferences can be hit-and-miss in terms of delivering genuine insights, but I felt fortunate that I had my recorder running during a panel that included Valve co-founder Gabe Newell at the WTIA TechNW conference this fall.

Newell delivered a dissertation on the modern economics of video games — explaining, in detail, how the company conducts behind-the-scenes pricing experiments to try to understand why we buy games when we do. It was like a business-school case study, in real time, from someone still figuring it out on the front lines.

In short, it was one of the most interesting things we heard all year. You can read our full transcript here.

– Todd Bishop

First look at Windows 8

With the advent of webcasts, we don’t travel as much as we once did to cover out-of-town events. But sometimes it’s still important to get on a plane, and that was the case with my September trip to Anaheim, where I got to be one of the first people outside of Microsoft to try Windows 8, the next version of the company’s operating system for PCs and tablets.

The product is critical to Microsoft’s future, and the experience was especially exhilarating for me because of the deadline pressure.

After a day of sessions with Microsoft engineers, we were loaned Windows 8 tablets to use literally overnight, and I know I wasn’t the only journalist who didn’t get any sleep that night in Anaheim. I tried to learn everything I could about Windows 8 in the process of using the tablet and writing up my initial thoughts for GeekWire before the embargo on news coverage lifted the next morning.

– Todd Bishop

Post-it Wars

Early in the year, we covered the Post-it Wars in Bellevue as a novelty, a friendly competition among office dwellers trying to one-up one another with geeky artwork in their windows.

But by the time it reached Seattle this fall, it had become a full-blown phenomenon, a reflection of the modern-day culture — and even an example of creative innovation.

Amazing stuff. Now get back to work, everybody.

Scoops, scoops, and more scoops

Nothing gets us as fired up as as the age-old journalistic scoop. We live for the thrill of the chase, and the chance to tell or show you something you’ve never heard or seen before. (Like the Amazon Lockers project above).

We were out in front on many stories over the past year, including Google’s major expansion in the Seattle region, Microsoft’s new vision of the future, the departures of key executives, Zynga’s new location in Pioneer Square, the whopping valuation placed on Zulily (more than $700 million) and, just this week, the pending acquisition of Ubermind by Deloitte, among other stories.

We also love to report on wacky patents and research projects, and some of the weirdest and most unusual we found this year came from Microsoft (control your phone by touching your pocket), Google (glove for seeing with your hand), and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (smartphone airbags).

Those are just some of our favorite highlights from the past year. We’re always looking for scoops, interesting people and good stories, and we’ll do our best to keep them coming in 2012. Email us at tips@geekwire.com whenever you have something to tell us about.

Happy New Year from GeekWire. Thanks for reading and supporting us in 2011.