Hate plopping down $500 or more every time you need another copy of Microsoft Office? For the most part, these three alternatives will read and write to Word, Excel, and other Microsoft formats. Just don't expect Microsoft-specific automation tools or all the advanced Microsoft formatting to work perfectly if working interchangeably with these products. But they're worth considering if you're on a tight budget.

StarOffice. Everything you'll find in MS Office is here, plus more, and at $99 per seat it's a fraction of the cost. Downside? The Java-based StarOffice runs noticeably slower than MS Office on the Windows platform. Go to www.sun.com and click on "download" for a copy.

ThinkFree Office. Instead of buying outright, you subscribe to ThinkFree Office for $50 per year. Documents can be stored locally or on an online "cyberdrive," where, in theory, they're backed up and safe. Plus it runs on Macs and PCs. Downside? Only three applications are included: Spreadsheet, Word Processor, and Presentation package. Try it out for 30 days at www.thinkfree.com.

gobe Productive. gobe (pronounced Go Be, after the BE operating system) Productive uses one mega file format for everything, so there's only one easy interface to learn. Plus, it includes tools for publishing documents to the Web and creating .pdf files. Downside? MSOffice users will have to learn a new interface. $125 ($75 limited time pricing), at www.gobe.com.

--Joe Stoddard is a technology consultant to the construction industry, stoddard@cbczine.com.