Once upon a time, if you were using software that you had acquired free, you were a pirate and doing something wrong. Those days are gone forever as people have begun to embrace a new concept. Free is good. And it’s legal.

While this is not a new concept to Linux and BSD users, it is a shift in thinking for most. A slow shift, perhaps, but one that seems inevitable.

Take Massachusetts’ Pierre Avignon. To his thinking, it makes no sense to purchase a product like Microsoft Office when he can download Symphony free from IBM. And IBM isn’t the only player in this growing market.

Google provides an online collaborative environment with its Google Docs- a suite similar to Symphony that also provides the ability to synchronize your online documents with your computer allowing you to access and modify your documents while offline. Smaller Zoho offers a similar service but is restricted to online storage only.

While these offerings are somewhat limited, average users are able to do all that they need to do using an online solution.

From Reuters:

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 USD 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.”

Power users, the people who fall into that remaining 10%, may want to consider Open Office as an alternative. But unless you specifically need the database and drawing capabilities of Open Office, a smaller package may be your best choice.

But how does this alternative work in the average business environment?

While providing all the tools that the average business environment needs, it may not be the best alternative from a support standpoint.

From Canadian Business:

But there absolutely is a price to be paid for migrating to any new productivity suite, regardless of its initial cost. “The savings are never as great as people would like to believe,” says Fen Yik, an analyst with Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont., who frequently fields questions from clients about Office alternatives. “There is an increased maintenance cost, increased support costs associated with switching over to an unfamiliar interface, as well as possible customization work that will have to be done.”

Yik says companies must focus on compatibility and integration, both within their own companies and with outside partners, when considering a change. The alternative suites come with some built-in conversion capabilities, but there are always imperfections. “In terms of functionality, an alternative would be fine for a small company with a very simple IT environment that has no interactions with other companies,” says Yik. “The problem is that productivity apps don’t run in a vacuum. The Office suite isn’t the kind of software you can just rip out and replace.”

So while office productivity tools in online solutions or as downloadable executables are a great alternative for home and small business users, it appears that they may not be ready for the enterprise environment. Having said that, IT support should at least be looking at them. As online collaborative and productivity tools become more pervasive, it may only be a matter of time.

How would you handle the introduction of standard office applications online in your work environment? Or are you already doing this?