Tip

Office-like app does Windows, Linux & Macs

Category: Web-based office productivity suite
Name of tool: ThinkFree Office v 1.7
Company name: ThinkFree Corp.
Price: At least $50 per year per user, with additional fees vary depending on online storage requirements
URL: www.thinkfree.com

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Windows platforms supported: 95/98/NT with SP 5/2000/XP (along with Mac and Linux versions as well)
Quick description: Word processing, presentations and spreadsheets all through your browser.

Strom-meter:
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool

Key features:
Pros:
Extremely easy and straightforward to use. Small and quick download within your browser.
File exchange fairly accurate with Microsoft Office formats.

Cons:
Each PC browser configuration may vary, and users need to verify that their equipment can support the ThinkFree software.
The service is not recommended for dial-up users.
Not all document features will be available, although most are rendered accurately.
Linux version is at 1.5, lagging behind Mac and Windows versions.

Description:

Are you tired of running megabytes of Microsoft Office software, paying through the nose for keeping current with the appropriate amount of licenses for your corporation, having Microsoft slyly upgrade your operating system through applying its Office updates, and not having a solid suite of office applications available for Linux users? If you answered yes to any of these situations, then you should consider ThinkFree Office.

There are a number of Office-like application suites out there (just a few include www.koffice.org, www.gnome.org, www.hancom.com/en/product_service/office.html, www.gobe.com, www.staroffice.org and linux.corel.com), but I like ThinkFree for a variety of reasons.

  • First, the software is lean and mean. The entire suite is only a paltry 10 MB of software that is easily downloaded from the company's Web site. This compares to about 200 MB or more of MS Office, depending on which features you end up installing.

  • Second, ThinkFree is very compatible with existing MS Office application file formats. While no application can be 100% faithful, it comes close enough for me and my applications' needs.

  • Third, ThinkFree works on Mac and Linux as well as Windows, making it useful for those corporations which have multiple platforms and still need to exchange documents with some degree of reliability. Many of the office suites are only available on Linux, for example, but ThinkFree seems to take its cross-platform role seriously.

  • Finally, ThinkFree has considered the user experience of MS Office carefully and designed its screen layouts, menu trees, buttons and dialog boxes to mimic Microsoft as closely as possible. Thus, the transition from MS Office to ThinkFree Office will be as painless as possible for your users.

It was relatively easy for me to start creating word documents and so forth with the three major applications that are part of the ThinkFree suite. I installed ThinkFree Office on a Windows XP 1700 MHz Pentium with 512 MB of RAM -- the company suggests at least 64 MB and a 200 MHz machine, which I also tried although it ran much slower. The faster machine also had MS Office 2000 installed, and I saved and opened a variety of documents between the two applications to test for various formats and appearance. After a while, I even got confused as to which application I was running, which I guess is a testimonial to ThinkFree's ability to mimic the Microsoft interface and design.

I found that surprisingly, ThinkFree does a very good job of reading MS Office documents with a great deal of fidelity. Most fonts came through just fine, although not all Word fonts were rendered accurately and the headers and footers in some of my PowerPoint slides didn't make it across.

The Write application can save files in Word, Windows Write, RTF, and HTML formats. The Show application can save files in PowerPoint and its own native format, and the Calc application can save files in Excel, HTML and its own native format. That is a nice arrangement. Of course, each of the three modules can read in documents from the native MS Office formats directly. There is a fourth application, a file manager that works with a "Cyberdrive" -- similar to those hard disk storage services out on the Internet (see my review of MyDocsOnline as one example). The nice thing here is that a user can be completely mobile and work on documents wherever and whenever there is an Internet connection.

You'll need a relatively recent version of either Internet Explorer (v 4.0 or better) or Netscape Navigator (version 4.06 or better) and a recent version of the Java virtual machine as well.

What is the price of this application? ThinkFree has a basic charge of $50 annually per user, and adds optional fees to this based on the amount of storage for your online files. (You don't need to buy any storage, but it can be useful.) The minimum storage fee is 40 MB for $30 annually, rising to 1 GB for $300 annually. One drawback is that the company only sells its software to credit card users, which could be an issue if a corporation wanted to make a larger volume purchase. (That is in the works, according to company representatives.)

One of the nice features of an annual subscription is that you can download as many copies of the software to as many machines that you own personally as many times as you wish during the year, including using the software on different platforms. The company has a beta version of its 2.0 Windows software, which includes support for WebDAV, PowerPoint animations, better font fidelity, and other improvements.

ThinkFree is a great application, and if you are looking to cut the Microsoft Office connection, it is a good place to begin.


Strom-meter key:
**** = Very cool, very useful
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

Bio: David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant, and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him email at david@strom.com.


This was first published in January 2002

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