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 IBM Web site.
It performs work for which he used to rely on Microsoft's 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 IT budgets.