September 7, 2005

ThinkFree Office? Think again

Author: Bruce Byfield

Despite its name, ThinkFree Office 3.0 is a proprietary office suite. Written in Java, it has found a niche on the Windows and Macintosh platforms, especially in China, Korea, and Japan. It comprises three applications: Write, a word processor; Calc, a spreadsheet; and Show, a presentation program; as well as a separate Setup program. It is available in both desktop and intranet server editions. Recently, its developers released a GNU/Linux version. Unfortunately, judging from the pre-release code that I reviewed, the results are subpar.

Running on GNU/Linux, ThinkFree Office performs far better than many people would expect a Java application to run. Imitating the interface of Microsoft Office 2003, it offers a stripped-down set of features suitable for light office use. However, the installation and configuration options seem unadapted to the operating system. In the end, the program does not live up to its marketing claims -- especially those of Microsoft Office compatibility -- and it compares poorly to the available alternatives.

Installation and configuration

ThinkFree's graphical installer is trouble-free, adding both the office suite and version 1.5 of the Java Runtime Environment and requiring no activation code.

At the same time, it is oddly disorienting, probably because it was adapted from a Windows version. This disorientation is not due only to the skill-testing requirement of entering a 25-digit registration number, although free software users may find that necessity an anachronism. Rather, it stems from a sense that many elements are irrelevant or poorly thought out for a GNU/Linux environment.

The sense of disparity starts when you first encounter the needless warning to "close other applications before continuing." It continues with the insistence that a user name and organization be entered, even though the installer can be run only by the root user -- precisely the one user on this multi-user operating system who is not going to be running the program. Yet the root user is the only one who's given desktop icons; other users get ThinkFree added to their menus, including an Uninstall button, which they cannot use. The program includes an offer to associate Microsoft Office files with ThinkFree, which does not work.

After configuration, some users might turn to the Settings tools to fine-tune. However,in the version I tested, these tools were either nonfunctional or inexplicable to an ordinary user. Selecting the option to smooth text rendering, for example, does nothing to improve the jagged rendering of bowls and curves on most fonts in the program. Other tools, such as the debugging log and automatic updates, work only for the root user, and thus should not be viewable by other users in a GNU/Linux program.

Interface and functionality

When you first open ThinkFree, its interface appears to be an exact clone of Microsoft Office 2003's. What you think of this decision depends largely on your frame of reference. For ThinkFree, this similarity is a selling point because it helps Office users to adapt quickly to the new software. For others, the similarity means that ThinkFree missed the chance to improve on a notoriously poor user interface design. From this perspective, custom alone dictates interface uses such as placing Page Setup in the File rather than the Format Menu, or Headers and Footers in the Edit rather than the Insert menu. New programs have a chance to replace such features with more user-friendly design. Too bad ThinkFree failed to seize the opportunity.

ThinkFree Office (click to enlarge)

Whatever your first impression, ThinkFree does not survive a closer look. Wisely, ThinkFree Office spares users from personalized menus -- the menus that place most frequently used items first, a design feature which experienced users rate as second in loathing only to the Office Assistant. Less wisely, perhaps, it does not support tearoff toolbars, although the widgets are designed to look as though it should. Nor does its Styles and Formatting window show a preview of styles, or undock from the right side of the editing window.

In fact, on closer look, ThinkFree is really a pared down version of Microsoft Office. Many features of interest only to advanced users are omitted, including collaboration tools, master documents, most sorting and function tools in Calc, and all sound and movie support in Show. Other tools, such as fields and tables of contents, are available, but with more limited selections than in Microsoft Office. The Find and Replace command, for instance, does not work on formatting, and only works in one direction.

ThinkFree includes styles, but reduces much of their point by having no templates in which they can be saved. ThinkFree can open template files, but the program can't save them without converting them to ordinary documents. Nor can any documents in ThinkFree be based on a template. The closest it comes is a selection of backgrounds for presentations in Show, which you apparently cannot add to. However, the lack of templates does avoid the well-documented problems with them in Microsoft Office. And perhaps the average office program user finds opening an existing file and immediately renaming it more familiar than opening a template.

Write looks a lot like Word 2003 (shown; click to enlarge)

Whether these omissions are desirable, of course, depends largely on whether you happen to need the missing features. Those who write long or highly designed documents will surely miss them, while others may never miss what they never knew existed.

Performance

Tested on an Athlon 2400 with one gigabyte of RAM, Write, Show, and Calc each consistently opened in 12 seconds. To put this figure in context, it is roughly half as long again as the OpenOffice.org 2.0 beta, and three to four times longer than AbiWord or KOffice applications on the same machine. Enabling either the quick launch or debugging feature in the Settings application did nothing to change the startup time.

Response time on an opened file is generally acceptable, with no noticeable lag between the keyboard and the screen. However, redraw lags when dragging the scroll bar for more than about a page, and mouseover help for hyperlinks lingers for minutes after the mouse cursor moves away. More seriously, files larger than about 1.5 megabytes crashed frequently, especially when they contained pictures. Some larger files could not be opened at all. Even more than the pared-down features, this performance suggests that ThinkFree is not suitable for long documents.

Performance was also affected by the fact that ThinkFree is an office suite as opposed to an office program. In other words, it consists of three separate programs, rather than three integrated ones. Calc, Show, and Write may share common code and similar interfaces, but the programs hardly interact at all. A file from one of the programs cannot be added as an object to another, nor can you write an outline using heading styles in Write, and then export it to Show and have all the slides for a presentation created. Perhaps ThinkFree assumes that most users are not aware of such connectivity, but for those who are, several operations take considerably longer to perform than they would in an integrated program.

Exporting and importing files

ThinkFree advertises compatibility with Microsoft Office as one of its major selling points. Instead of having its own format, ThinkFree Office uses the Office document format. The GNU/Linux version includes copies of Times Roman, Helvetica, and Arial, the three most commonly used fonts in Windows. According to the company Web site, this is supposed to offer "extreme compatibility". The news release announcing the GNU/Linux version is even more emphatic, stressing this compatibility as a major advantage over OpenOffice.org and claiming that ThinkFree Office has the "best round trip compatibility with Microsoft Office."

In practice, ThinkFree Office does not even come close to matching this hype. In my tests, files created in Write preserved their text formatting when opened in Word, but lost all graphics and some fields, including the table of contents.

Microsoft Office files imported to ThinkFree fared even worse. Microsoft Office 95 or 6.0 formats are not supported at all, even though both are still relatively common. What's worse, files in Office formats 97-2003 were often imported with major errors.

For example, when I tried to import several Word documents, the same errors appeared repeatedly. The inclusion of standard fonts was negated by the fact that all paragraphs in Normal style were rendered at 12 point, regardless of their actual size, a change that destroyed formatting as surely as font substitution would have. Further, indentations and alignments were often changed, especially on the last line of a paragraph. Check boxes and other form features, as well as nested tables, were lost altogether. Even worse, single pages were frequently replaced by several pages, most of which had only a single line or paragraph on them. Documents containing graphics could not be opened at all. Calc documents were more successful when they contained numbers, but both Calc and Show exports had most of the same problems.

PDF exports, another alleged selling point, were equally disappointing. The fact that links and bookmarks could not be generated was disappointing, but considering my experiences with other programs, this wasn't unexpected. What I didn't expect was to have the first heading of the first document duplicated not only in my first PDF export, but in each subsequent one until I closed and restarted the program.

Overall, ThinkFree's filters fell well short of the company's marketing claims. The code that I reviewed did not include HTML export, which was claimed in the product's news release. Moreover, the performance of all its filters was far below that of filters in free and open source software. Even though no free software package can flawlessly import or export Microsoft Office or PDF documents, virtually all of them do so with fewer errors than ThinkFree. In many cases, the results from ThinkFree were unusable.

The outlook for ThinkFree

ThinkFree Office faces two formidable obstacles in the GNU/Linux market. First, the market for office programs is already heavily saturated, with at least half a dozen available. As a latecomer to the market, ThinkFree has considerable catching up to do. This may explain why the new product is available online for $50, a price well below single copies of StarOffice, the leading proprietary program.

Second, for any proprietary program to succeed, it has to offer significant advantages over the existing free and open source software (FOSS) alternatives. With the growing maturity of FOSS programs, this obstacle is becoming increasingly harder to overcome. Yet ThinkFree Office not only fails to offer any such advantages, it also fails to match the free competition in terms of features or performance. At least two alternatives, OpenOffice.org and AbiWord, are even cross-platform applications, just as ThinkFree is -- a fact that removes another potential advantage.

These obstacles are hard enough to overcome on their own. Added to the failure to live up to claims, they may be enough to prevent ThinkFree from gaining a foothold in a market with strong meritocratic tendencies. Even its availability in Asian languages is not the competitive advantage that it might have been a few years ago.

In fairness, many of the rough edges I saw will undoubtedly be sandpapered away in the final code. However, even if the final code lives up to the hype surrounding it, it would still offer less than free alternatives, and nothing short of another major version release is likely to change that. In the field ofGNU/Linux office programs, ThinkFree Office is simply a case of too little, too late.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge and the Linux Journal Web site.

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