- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

Who says your productivity software has to reside on your computer? Not ThinkFree Corp. of San Jose, Calif.

The firm’s eponymous ThinkFree Office Online, https://online.thinkfree.com, offers 30 megabytes of storage, the rough equivalent of 15,000 pages of text, for documents, presentations or spreadsheets, which can be edited with the firm’s “clones” of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

The cost? Zip, zero, zilch — which presumably explains the “Free” part of ThinkFree. It’s been six years since I first ran across the firm at a technology conference; now it seems to have a rather robust platform available.

But is a free application worth it when business work is involved? A quick test, occasioned by a trial of a computer that didn’t have the obligatory Microsoft suite installed, tells me yes, at least for simple tasks.

What’s more, the Web-based version of ThinkFree Office — there’s a retail package of the software said to run on Windows, Macintosh and Linux systems — appears to make the jump from Windows to Mac systems quite easily.

The key is Sun Microsystem’s Java, a way to create and run programs in a variety of environments, or so Sun says.

Most people refer to it as a computing “environment,” not quite an application, not quite an operating system. However you define it, Java-based applications can, in theory, easily run on various platforms, as long as the Java software is in your machine. On Macs and many Windows boxes, that’s not a problem.

Once loaded, ThinkFree Office’s applications are very similar in look and feel to their Microsoft Office counterparts. Not every Microsoft Word feature is available in ThinkFree Office 3 Write, but enough are present to let me prepare an article or report without too much hassle.

I can get a word count, but not change the case of highlighted text with a menu option. A spell-checker is built in, but there’s no online thesaurus.

PowerPoint and Excel files seemed to open quite easily in their ThinkFree counterpart applications, and there apparently are enough tools to handle the task of revising such items. As with ThinkFree’s “Write,” I wonder a bit about how complex one could go, but for basic projects, all three ThinkFree applications appear to be more than sufficient.

Printing may be a different matter. One can save files as Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) files, which can be read and printed on any number of computers. But the program claims an ability to print to a printer attached to the computer; in my trial, something triggered a “no ink” warning when there was, indeed, ink in the printer. A little more work may be needed here.

I suspect that ThinkFree hopes to “monetize” this free Web application by selling copies of its software, licenses for a server version for corporate networks, and extra space to Web denizens constrained by 30 MB of storage.

Fair enough: ThinkFree Office shows definite promise and, on the Web at least, the price really cannot be beat.

But the very presence of ThinkFree Office online, however, raises a question for Microsoft’s Bill Gates and his peers: How much longer will users be forced to buy their applications by the box? The answer, I suspect, is not very long, indeed.

E-mail [email protected] or visit https://www.kellner.us.

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