May 8, 2008

IBM Offers Free Alternative to Microsoft Office

For those who hate shelling out big bucks for programs like Microsoft Office Suite "” the full standard version is listed on Amazon at upwards of $325"”you might be interested in Symphony, a free suite that can be downloaded from an International Business Machines Corp Web site (Link Below).

Pierre Avignon, a 43-year-old graphics designer from West Newbury, Massachusetts, uses it to perform work for which he used to rely on Microsoft Word's 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.

The number of users on the Internet seeking alternatives to paid software is growing with the availability of broadband access. This has spawned a new type of software"”programs that are hosted by developers on their own servers that are designed to foster collaboration among users by making documents easy to share.

Large Internet companies such as Google and smaller ones like the privately held Zoho offer free office suites over the Web where users don't have to install 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," said Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst with Nucleus Research. "But few people actually use such features."

She says free programs like Google Docs and others are looking increasingly attractive to businesses as they seek ways to keep their information technology budgets low.

"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."

Users who don't want to pay may look to Symphony and its cousin, OpenOffice, a program developed by a nonprofit group that includes a database program and drawing software.

"Symphony does not lack many features that even power users of Office need," said Rob Tidrow, a computer programmer who has written several guides to using Microsoft Office.

He installed Symphony on the computers of his two children, but says it is also robust enough to meet the needs of churches, schools and small businesses. Tidrow just finished writing "IBM Lotus Symphony for Dummies".

"They can save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars by using free software," he said.

Cost is generally not a prime deciding factor for Office customers, says Kirk Gregersen, a Microsoft product manager.

He said, according to surveys, price is generally the eighth most important factor and that "free" has its setbacks.

Avignon has encouraged friends to try Symphony but has won few converts.

"As soon as you say it's free, (people) feel less comfortable. They say 'What's the catch?'" Avignon said.

Still, Microsoft is keeping a close eye on these products.

"We take the competition super-seriously. We have to, or we wouldn't be doing the right thing," said Gregersen.


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