The release of ThinkFree Online is really a re-release, according to Jonathan Crow, Thinkfree's director of marketing. During a phone interview, Crow explained that ThinkFree CEO T. J. Kang began developing the software in 1999. "He had hear all about Sun's vision of the lightweight computer that basically connected over the Internet, which served up all the applications," Crow says. However, Kang concluded that "the technology wasn't quite ready at that point," and decided to sell ThinkFree as a desktop application instead. ThinkFree Online was revived in June 2005, and released as a beta in April 2006.
On the webtop
Free accounts for ThinkFree Office are available from the company's home page. For now, accounts are ad-free, and come with one gigabyte of online storage. In the future, users may have the option of paying for a premium edition in order to remain free of advertising, to receive extra storage space, or to use additional features.
ThinkFree Webtop - click to enlarge
Once users create their accounts, they log in to their home page, or "webtop." The webtop is essentially an account and file manager. The left column lists statistics about the account, including the amount of storage space left, the number of files, and the email addresses that can use the account. The rest of the page is given over to the account's files, with a list of recently used files across the top, and a list of individual files below. From the webtop, users can upload or download files from their systems, and add keywords or comments to files stored online. They can also make a file generally available on the Internet, share it with selected email addresses, or post it to a blog. If they want to find other generally available files on the ThinkFree site, a search field is available in the upper right corner.
The webtop is also the launcher for new files. Currently, ThinkFree consists of three programs: Write, Calc, and Show -- respectively, a word processor, spreadsheet, and slide show application. These programs have no interoperability with each other, but share several common features, including a drawing toolbar and a connection to Flickr that allows users to select pictures according to the Creative Commons license under which they are released. According to Crow, connections to other Web services are being considered, including ones to del.icio.us and Google Maps. Other major applications, such as a database or charting tool, are not currently being planned for ThinkFree Online.
ThinkFree Power Edit Mode - click to enlarge
Launching a new or stored file from the webtop for the first time after a login took about 90 seconds on my test machine. Later files opened in 15 seconds -- a considerable improvement, but still far slower than either ajaxWriter or Writely. Perhaps for this reason, opening a word processor file gives users the option of Quick Edit, an AJAX application that, like other online word processors, has the functionality of an advanced text editor, or Power Edit, the Java-based ThinkFree application. According to Crow, Quick Edit versions of Calc and Show will also be developed, although how spreadsheets and slide show programs can be stripped down and remain useful is hard to imagine -- perhaps with a spreadsheet with only a few dozen functions, and a slide show program with no choice of background or slide layout?
Applications and performance
Though opening times are ThinkFree's main disadvantage over competing applications, once opened, the ThinkFree Java applications leave their rivals far behind in terms of features. Using ThinkFree Online feels more like using a desktop office suite, especially Microsoft Office, or, to a lesser extent, OpenOffice.org, than any other online office suite. Most of the basic features that users expect in an office suite are available, including document properties, margins, headers and footers, and fields in Write, more than 300 functions in Calc, and several dozen slide backgrounds in Show.
To an extent, this familiarity should make ThinkFree Online easy to learn. However, the familiarity can just as easily become a liability by creating false expectations. Even the interface can be misleading; for instance, ThinkFree's toolbars have the perforations on the left that should indicate that they can tear off to become floating windows, but are fixed in space.
More seriously, features are not always where expectations based on other word processors would lead users to expect. ThinkFree's menus contain no top-level entry for adding a table of contents, and, unless users think to search through the list of fields, they could easily conclude that Write lacks support for the feature. Nor could they learn otherwise from the Help, which consists of descriptions of top-level menu items, and gives no task-based information at all.
Just to confuse things more, some features that users might expect in an office suite actually are missing. They include indexes and autotext in Write, function utilities such as Detective or Goal Seek in Calc, and any sound options in Show. Others are available, but turned off, such as AutoCorrect in Write. Others, such as the border and background tools in all applications, are set to Clear by default, so that users could easily conclude that the features aren't there. Still others are available, but with stripped-down functionality, such as the Find tool, which cannot use regular expressions or search by formatting.
For these reasons, users need to scale down their expectations when working with ThinkFree Online. If it has more features than its rivals, it is still not a complete replacement for a mature desktop office application. Although the Java applications work with each user's system fonts, their online rendering can only be described in polite terms as pre-WYSIWYG.
Similarly, although ThinkFree likes to boast about its Microsoft compatibility -- "We really do have the best MSO compatibility available," Crow told me --in practice, its translation filters have as many holes as those of other office applications. That is to say, the filters are adequate for basic documents, but unreliable for advanced features, especially ones that ThinkFree does not support, including sections and text frames. In other areas, the filters are hit or miss; for instance, page number fields are supported, but not page count fields.
Once you understand these limitations, ThinkFree Office's niche becomes clearer. It is useful for small documents of no more than perhaps 15 pages, and documents in which formatting or the ability to revise over several years are not concerns. In an emergency, you might design and run a small presentation in Show. But, for more demanding purposes, ThinkFree Office is as likely to be frustrating as it is useful. If that seems like damning with faint praise, it is still more than I would say about most of its competitors. ThinkFree Office is the first online office suite that I would consider doing any work in whatsoever.
I suspect that the attraction of online applications like ThinkFree Office depends partly on your operating system. For Windows users, accustomed to proprietary software whose license limits the number of machines it can be installed on, the attraction of a free office suite that is accessible anywhere with a high-speed connection is obvious. By contrast, GNU/Linux users, who are able to install software where and when necessary, may see less point. Similarly, although Crow claims that the Web can be a "more security environment," most of the reasons for that claim are the ability to control how files are share, a feature not yet introduced on un-networked Windows machines, but an everyday feature on most Unix-based systems.
Another factor in judging online office applications may be how well you have learned to use desktop ones. For advanced users, the lack of or de-emphasis on styles, templates, and advanced features seem a step back. Less proficient users might argue that online applications simply reflect the way that the majority of users work, and they would be right. But for those who know their way around office software, many online office offerings seems little better than reverting to a typewriter.
Whether online applications will become popular this time around is anyone's guess. Possibly, free software has superseded them. However, for all its shortcomings, ThinkFree Office is worth keeping an eye on because it is the first online office suite not to throw away most of the advantages of traditional desktop applications. If ThinkFree can provide a broader feature set and reduce the delay in opening the first file after login, it has a chance of becoming the leading player in its market.
Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.