BOSTON (Reuters) - Pierre Avignon is no pirate, but he does not believe in paying for software. His computer is filled with programs like Symphony -- a free suite that he downloaded from an International Business Machines Corp IBM.N website (symphony.lotus.com).
It performs work for which he used to rely on Microsoft Corp's MSFT.O Word word processor, Excel spreadsheet and PowerPoint presentation builder, all components of the Microsoft Office software suite.
“It is free. It is a great deal,” says Avignon, a 43-year-old graphics designer from West Newbury, Massachusetts.
Free software was once almost exclusively borne of a grass-roots effort -- with an anti-Microsoft bent -- seeking alternatives to paid software. The movement produced myriad programs, but only a handful of widely used titles such as the Linux operating system.
Microsoft says Office has 500 million users.
Growth in the availability of broadband Internet access has spawned a new type of free software -- programs that its developers host on their own servers and have designed to foster collaboration among users by making documents easy to share.
Users don’t have to install the programs or even keep documents on their own PCs.
You can’t set up mass mailings or run sophisticated data analysis using most free, Web-based software, says Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst with Nucleus Research. But she says few people actually use such features.
Google Docs and other free programs are looking increasingly attractive to businesses, she said, as they seek ways to keep down their information technology budgets.
Microsoft's entry-level business version of Office costs $325 at Amazon.com AMZN.O, about triple the price of its version targeted at home users.
“Ninety percent of the users don’t need all the functionality that Office provides,” Wettemann said. “Ninety percent of people basically just use Excel to make lists.”
More demanding users who don’t want to pay may look to Symphony and its cousin, OpenOffice, a package developed by a nonprofit group that also includes a database program and drawing software.
Rob Tidrow, a computer programmer who has written several guides to using Microsoft Office, says that Symphony does not lack many features that even power users of Office need.
Tidrow, who just finished writing “IBM Lotus Symphony for Dummies,” said he installed the IBM program on computers that his two children use, but it is also robust enough to meet the needs of churches, schools and small businesses.
“They can save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars by using free software,” he said.
Kirk Gregersen, a Microsoft product manager, says that cost is generally not a prime deciding factor for Office customers.
Surveys show that price is generally the eighth most important factor, he said.
And “free” has its setbacks.
“As soon as you say it’s free, (people) feel less comfortable,” says Avignon, who has encouraged friends to try Symphony but has won few converts. “They say ‘What’s the catch?’”
Even so, Microsoft is closely watching these products.
“We take the competition super-seriously,” says Gregersen. “We have to, or we wouldn’t be doing the right thing.”
Reporting by Jim Finkle, editing by Gerald E. McCormick
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