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Salam Pax is still alive

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the example of a Baghdad blogger, typing away as the bombs fell, testifies both to the specific value of blogging as well as to the broader impact the Internet may yet have around the world.

Salam Pax is still alive.

That wasn't supposed to be the lead for this column. I was planning to work up a piece on the significance of the next incarnation of Microsoft's Windows operating system (Note to editor: Let's move that one down the page.)

This week's bigger news is that Salam is still with us.

For those who have not closely followed the story, Salam Pax is the handle of a Baghdad blogger whose daily updates from Iraq's capital turned him into something of a cult Internet figure. Months' worth of Salam's dispatches, variously marked by mordant humor and detailed insight, make for a fascinating chronicle of how ordinary people dealt with the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Then, just as the bombing began in mid-March, Salam stopped posting. The speculation ran the gamut of possibilities, always circling around to the likelihood that his dead body was lying crushed under a pile of rubble.

Happily, the worst he suffered was a power outage that temporarily cut off his connection to the Internet. Now that he's back to chronicling life in Iraq, I've again bookmarked his blog as part of my must-read Web sites in the a.m.

That a "nobody" like Salam wound up providing a more nuanced view of his world--better than either the authoritarian inanities of the Iraqi information minister or the Geraldo-besotted dispatches of the commercial television networks--testifies both to the specific value of blogging as well as to the broader impact the Internet may yet have around the world.

Watching the growth of blogging the past couple of years, we've reached the point where it's no longer cause for comment when CEOs such as Mitch Kapor and Ray Ozzie or would-be presidential candidates such as Gary Hart operate their own Web logs.

What will be the Internet's impact on global culture? The answer remains unclear. From a historical point of view, the technology is in its infant stage and the story line could finish up in any number of ways. Still, there are tantalizing clues.

On his Web log, Dave Winer recently noted the decentralizing impact of the Internet on what he describes as the "monoculture." In this sense, the Internet becomes a revolutionary tool changing the cost of distributing culture to the point where it has become virtually free. "Every day we're asked to pay a price to continue the existing centralized system of flowing information and creativity," writes Winer. "What if we don't want to pay?"

It's a provocative and perceptive question that goes straight to the bigger point: The global distribution of information, which creates news and culture, is no longer an exclusive monopoly. For the interests that have traditionally acted as information gatekeepers, this is bad news in bells. We don't have to pay, and there are only going to be more alternatives as the rest of the world gets wired.

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Billionaire basketball
What is it about tech geeks turned sports franchise owners? Paul Allen (of Microsoft fame) owns the Portland Trailblazers--but his team, which just managed its annual choke in the NBA playoffs, hasn't won spit since Bill Walton was wearing a ponytail. Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (of Broadcast.com fame) is screaming at the refs, but that won't save his team from getting clocked by the Sacramento Kings. And then there's Steady Teddy Leonsis (AOL's vice chairman), the Falstaffian minority owner of the Washington Wizards who was last seen ducking a Michael Jordan haymaker.

•  •  •

Grabbing the Longhorn with no bull
Which of these is most likely to happen?

A) The United States captures Saddam Hussein.
B) The New York Mets win the World Series.
C) Microsoft ships Longhorn on time.

If you answered "C," you just lost out on a dream evening with Eugene Levy look-alike and raconteur extraordinaire, CNET News.com's very own Michael Kanellos.

Earlier this week, Microsoft executives, speaking to reporters at the company's annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), said the next major version of Windows, a product code-named Longhorn, would ship in 2005. Considering that representatives had earlier indicated a late 2004 debut for the ballyhooed operating system upgrade, it puts the software maker officially behind schedule.

In fairness to Microsoft, the company always seems to fall behind on big software projects. But it is a habit that has not demonstrably hurt Microsoft's bottom line. Software is hard stuff, and the millions of lines of code earmarked for a project of this kind require thousands of hours of debugging by engineers. Besides, a few months here or there--what's the big difference?

It's not an argument worth pursuing. Microsoft is too practiced to get pinned down on those sorts of niggling details, anyway. What's more important is the big picture, as is the message Microsoft wants to send about Longhorn and how it is supposed to reinvigorate the visual quality of personal computing.

"The weight of the company is behind Longhorn," said Will Poole, the senior vice president of the Windows Client division at Microsoft. "This is a huge bet for the company. It will really change the landscape of what people see."

I don't know if he was blushing at the time, but Poole's purple prose was of a piece with the windbag-heavy hype given to upcoming products at Microsoft--with one big difference: There's more at stake this time around.

Unlike the last time Microsoft introduced a major incarnation of Windows--the 2001 release of Windows XP--the software maker now faces a growing threat from Linux. The company is clearly not in imminent danger of losing its monopoly control over the market for desktop operating systems, but a smooth debut for Longhorn is all the more important for CEO Steve Ballmer.

At this stage, the competition with Linux largely centers on servers and corporate data centers. Still, Ballmer and the rest of Microsoft's senior brass don't need history lessons to remind them how quickly the constellation of power in the computer industry can change. Better than most, they know that every day Longhorn falls behind schedule is one more day of uncertainty about the future.

Expense this!
What will it take to get through to the rich fools running some of the computer industry's best-known companies that they can't keep playing number games with the company books? Expensing stock options presents a more accurate picture of a company's operational earnings--but listen to the mandarins of Silicon Valley continuing to resist shareholder calls for any such reform and you'd think the barbarians were at the gates.

The latest salvo comes courtesy of Intel Chairman Andy Grove, one of the smarter people to ever work in the technology industry. "We believe this is a deeply flawed method of accounting that will diminish the accuracy and clarity of our financial reporting and could cause real economic harm to Intel, our stockholders and our economy," Grove wrote in a letter to shareholders earlier this week.

Good rhetoric. Only Andy, bubbelah, you know it just ain't so.