Free Software Challenges Microsoft
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Microsoft's entry-level business version of Office costs $325 at Amazon.com, 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."