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Internet and the fog of war

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper curses the cheerleading TV anchors determined to outdo each other in dumbing down the complexity of war to the simplicity of a football match.

Stumbling our way through the fog of war, one conclusion is beyond dispute: The Internet has emerged as the best antidote to the numbing stupidity that passes for daily television coverage two weeks into America's battle with Iraq. Before some coiffed curmudgeons accuse me of shilling for the medium where I practice my profession, I have the highest respect for "embedded" television reporters risking their lives to cover what is arguably an impossible assignment. But back at network central, it's a different story. Sitting by their studios, cheerleading anchors seem determined to outdo each other in dumbing down the complexity of this historic conflict to the simplicity of a football match. John Madden meets Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf, and we watch zombie-like as they call the big game.

Most people will no doubt continue to rely on television--here and around the globe--to make heads and tails of what's going on in a fast-moving, confusing conflict. More than a half a century of watching commercial television has unfortunately conditioned people to passively consume information. But change is afoot.

After 9/11, the Internet emerged as a surprising source for people interested in context and a multiplicity of viewpoints. That is again proving the case. News sources and first-person accounts from both sides of the battlefield are available for the asking. And folks are saying: You know that when "Al-Jazeera" overtakes "sex" as the most searched-for term on Lycos, we've passed some sort of Rubicon.

The Internet also puts an extra onus on Web surfers. Filtering out the noise and disinformation is not always easy. For example, one ongoing guessing game concerns the authenticity of the mysterious author of Where is Raed?, a blog said to emanate from Baghdad. If he's on the up-and-up, Raed offers a fascinating insider's view of what it's like to sit through massive aerial bombardments. If it's a fraud, you know that Raed had a good long laugh getting us to tune in. (So, I should add, did television's Geraldo Rivera with his discovery of Al Capone's vault.) For the record, the Raed blog hasn't been updated since March 24, one of the busiest days of the air war.

Now, back to you, Wolf.

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Should you trust Microsoft?
Microsoft has spent a veritable fortune over the years to employ countless public relations specialists to shape a favorable public perception of the software maker. Yet a new Forrester poll indicates that three-fourths of software security experts at major companies still don't believe Microsoft's products are secure--and this after the company's much-ballyhooed Trustworthy Computing initiative. Computer spinmeisters dutifully repeated the company line that ultimate security is not something that would get fixed overnight. Maybe so, but if they can't put this problem quickly behind them, Bill Gates should demand a refund.

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The future of Web services?
Bob Sutor, who directs IBM's Web services strategy, recently got an earful from an IT executive speaking at a recent panel. "We love Web services," said the exec. "But when we talk to vendors, we make one thing perfectly clear right up front: We want to use all the Web services capabilities, but we're not willing to pay anything extra for them. And we're certainly not going to pay for you to differentiate away from standards to support Web services." That was a surprise, Sutor said. "Nobody had ever said this to me before."

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White boxes, Web services and Dell
After emerging as the PC cost king, Dell Computer has since expanded into workstations and servers and, more recently, into printers and so-called white boxes.

The company last month shipped its first printers, which are made by Lexmark International, and received decent--though hardly gushing--reviews. As for white boxes, the term refers to computers built for dealers and regional manufacturers that resell the machines under their own names. When Dell last August announced its white-box plans, executives talked about how white boxes would ultimately help double total sales. (CEO Michael Dell has since expressed a more cautious tone).

Although it's too early to gauge the success of either initiative, there is a familiar theme: In each instance, we're talking about hardware where price and delivery define the rules of the game. Dell long ago mastered that drill, and there's no reason to suspect its corporate DNA won't kick into gear as the company ventures into new, albeit associated, businesses.

But selling commodity gear is one thing. Selling the kind of advanced corporate services increasingly demanded by enterprise IT shops is another. If I had a dime every time someone said Dell was biting off too much, I could have retired years ago. And maybe there is so much new hardware business for the taking that Dell will never need to think about offering Web services or vertical consulting expertise. But it is clear that as corporate buyers slowly emerge from a long hibernation to upgrade their IT infrastructure, chief information officers will demand more from their suppliers than ever before.