BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX _ AND AOL

BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX _ AND AOL

There's something particularly schizophrenic about technology news reporting lately.

Technology writers have long considered Bill Gates to be by far the biggest gunslinger in the one-horse town of high-tech.But now the AOL-Time Warner merger and the triumph of AOL head Steve Case has people downright confused. Does this mean that Case is really the King of the Hill? The writers can't seem to decide.

But in all this confusion, they may have been missing what has been the biggest tech story of all in recent weeks.

The story has to do with something that is a lot bigger than either Microsoft or AOL. It's a nation called China, and it's just turned its back on the standard U.S. way of computing by rejecting Microsoft Windows for its government operations (which would be about the same as rejecting Windows for everything).

Instead, China is opting for a version of Linux - the free, geek-beloved operating system invented by a man from Finland with a funny-sounding name.

The potential implications of China's Microsoft rejection are profound. It's not just that a company that has played a huge role in leading the American economic boom of recent years will lose access to a huge market.

It's that the entire software trade flow could reverse. If Linux really is the superior operating system - both technologically and in terms of its cost efficiency - as its advocates claim, and the Chinese become the world experts in using it, then China may be the one selling its software and computer expertise to us in the long run. Your Microsoft shares may be worth hardly a thing.

Of course this all assumes that China is capable of efficiently creating a new Linux industry and infrastructure. And not everybody thinks that is going to happen.

''Oh yeah, China is a very efficient government. I'm sure they will be able to get all their ministries to follow a single implementation plan,'' one writer posted on the misc.invest.stocks newsgroup recently.

And others think Linux in general is still not developed enough to justify such a large-scale adoption. ''Linux has very little hardware support,'' wrote one poster on the 3dfx.products.voodoobanshee newsgroup. ''MS has the support. China is making a mistake.''

Then we also have to wonder whether we actually have any real reason to believe that China has even decided to ban Windows at all. After all, it's a big nation, and just because one bureaucrat says he or she likes Linux doesn't mean that's nationwide policy.

A Jan. 14 CNN.com story headlined ''China backs Linux'' seems to be totally based on an interview with a man who says he talked to a Chinese governmental minister.

A bit more credible is the South China Morning Post, which reported on Jan. 7 that an official newspaper called the Yangcheng Evening News said ''some specialists believed heavy reliance on some Microsoft systems could lead to security leaks and make government computers more vulnerable to viruses.''

The apparent solution is to have the Chinese Academy of Science's software research center develop a new kind of Linux dubbed - get this - Red Flag-Linux.

I don't really know what it all means, but I do know one thing.

I sure ain't going to be buying any Microsoft stock anytime soon.