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Czech out this Microsoft Office alternative

Software602 updates its productivity package, which started as a creation of Czech hobbyists.

Today the Czech Republic, tomorrow the world.

At least that's the way Software602 hopes business will work, as the company looks to expand its productivity software, the longtime market leader in its native land, to North America and other markets.

The company on Wednesday released a new version of its 602PC Suite, adding tools for converting documents into files based on Adobe Systems' widespread Portable Document Format. Company President Premysl Pech said PDF capability helps solve one of the most common challenges for any software that challenges Microsoft's dominant Office--the ability to exchange files with people using a different productivity application.

"It definitely brings more open-platform support," Pech said. "People can e-mail a file to anybody as a PDF and know they'll be able to read it."

602 started out as nonprofit club in 1989, when DOS still ruled the PC world and no commercially produced word processor supported the Czech language. A few hobbyist programmers decided to create their own, naming the group and the application after a registration number assigned it by the Czech government.

Since then, the group has turned into a for-profit company and has expanded the software into a package of applications intended to meet most of the needs of the average Windows PC user. Besides a word processor, 602PC Suite includes a spreadsheet program, a graphics editor and a digital photo organizer.

602PC Suite is still free for home users to download, while business customers are expected to fork over $30 per license. Terms are equally generous for the company's other main product, 602LAN Suite, an e-mail server that is free for installations with five or fewer users.

Pech said the company's strategy is to first grab people's attention with a software package that looks and feels like Microsoft Office and handles Office file formats.

"Way back in 2000, we figured out it's hard to compete with Microsoft," he said. "We made a decision that instead of developing a product better than Microsoft, we'd try to develop something that looks the same and costs a lot less."

Pech said 602PC Suite has about 3 million users now, about half of them in North America, where business adoption is slowly growing. "By releasing it free to the home market, we've built up a very strong base there, and now, we're taking the next step," he said.

602PC Suite competes with a growing number of Microsoft Office alternatives, led by Sun Microsystems' StarOffice; its free, open-source sibling OpenOffice.org; and perennial contender .