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July 26-August 1, 2006

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Open Source

In Silicon Valley, alternative computing is easy


A LOT OF tech types talk a good game about the high falutin' democratic principles of open source code, but it's what they do behind closed doors that really counts. And it's there that many well-meaning users balk at a commitment to what has traditionally been seen as an admirable but intimidating personal-computing path. But with all the community support at hand in Silicon Valley, there's little to fear from Linux anymore.

Open source means the software can be manipulated, modified and redistributed in a new form because the kernal's source code is public—unlike Windows or Mac OS proprietary systems. Linux replaces the original operating system, so the computer must be reformatted first. "It's like the foundation of a house," said Paul Reed, Silicon Valley Linux User's Group (SVLUG) president. "You can't flush it out without knocking down and rebuilding."

But information is not permanently lost because it can be burned onto disks then reloaded. To help new users with the switch, install fests are held at Google by the SVLUG the third Saturday of each month. The open source Internet community also provides downloads from websites like SourceForge.net, which has over 100,000 applications.

There is a learning curve beyond the basic computing applications, such as email usage and Internet access, but there are countless Internet support sites, forums and literature to overcome technical shortcomings.

The extensive support is recent, compared to earlier years when Linux was esoteric and you had to go somewhere and create a user's group to get help, said Reed. Open source has become more mainstream, especially with Silicon Valley's startup mentality.

Linux has grown in popularity because of the ability to escape the Windows "treadmill," said Reed. "Linux runs on weird, underpowered hardware," he said. "You don't need to buy a new operating system every 18 to 36 months that won't run on the old machine because it's too slow, making it so you never get off."

This makes Linux cheaper from a personal standpoint, because the cost of upgrades that go with Microsoft software is avoided, he said.

An increasing number of companies are using open source for its cost effectiveness, as well. Thirty-nine percent of large corporations use Linux, according to a survey by Goldman, Sachs & Co. Peace of mind from being able to change source code is also a benefit to companies, even if they never touch the code, said Andrew Aitkin, managing partner of Silicon Valley-based open-source-management consulting firm the Olliance Group.

"If a proprietary vendor's program goes out, they do not have access to it anymore," he said. "It is dead software and won't evolve. Open source will still exist and grow and is safer to use."

Linux usage in Silicon Valley is growing tremendously, said Aitkin.

"It's going to become a standard in a couple years," he said. "It won't be a big deal anymore, just part of computing."


Computer History Museum, 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd, Mountain View, 650.810.1010. Olliance Group (open source business consulting) 841 Willow Rd, Menlo Park, www.olliancegroup.com. Silicon Valley Linux Users Group (monthly meetings/events) www.svlug.org. Technetra (open source consulting) 14510 Big Basin Way #260, Saratoga, www.technetra.com.


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