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12/15/2006
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Google's Holiday Wish May Come True: An Online Clone Of Microsoft Office

A Google team has visited the Korean company that makes ThinkFree Office, a clone of Microsoft Office, for acquisition talks twice in recent days, according to Korean press reports.

Rumors of a deal between Google and the Korean developer of an online Microsoft Office clone gained intensity Friday as Kang Tae-jin, CEO of the Korean firm, arrived in Silicon Valley.

Kang's firm, The ThinkFree Corp., makes the ThinkFree Office suite, a highly-regarded bundle of office software that mimics the Microsoft standard. A Google acquisition team—reportedly the same team that led the company's acquisition of YouTube—has visited the Korean company for acquisition talks twice in recent days, according to Korean press reports.

While Google has been acquiring individual pieces of office productivity software, they don't constitute a threat to Microsoft's Office, at least so far. In March, Google acquired tiny Upstartle and its Internet-based Writely word processor. Last month, the search-engine company picked up the founders of Israel-based spreadsheet provider iRows.

"Google isn't just buying code," says Google watcher Stephen Arnold, managing director of Arnold IT. "They're buying people. It's quicker for Google to bring in people who have demonstrated clever problem solving."

Arnold, author of "The Google Legacy," says he doesn't expect to see a comprehensive and effective suite of office software released from Google for six months to a year. He speculated that a Google offering will find its way into a Google appliance someday. Eventually, he expects to see Google link together a variety of office-oriented products, including Gmail, VoIP, word processing, presentation graphics, and spreadsheets.

In the meantime, Google has been promoting its Web-based Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Arnold says Microsoft isn't shaking in its boots over those offerings, but they could represent a toehold in the software giant's lucrative Microsoft Office revenue stream. A new and improved version of the Microsoft product, called Microsoft Office 2007, has been made available for business customers.

Google could be using the potential of an Office clone to taunt Microsoft, Arnold says. "This could be nothing more than nerd humor," he says. "Google loves to jerk Microsoft's chain. The fun part is watching Redmond turn cartwheels."

The ThinkFree suite was created and enhanced by software developers in Korea; marketing is directed from its offices in San Jose. ThinkFree Corp. is a unit of Korea's Haansoft.

Jong-jin Baek, Haansoft's president, favors an alliance with Google but doesn't want to give up control of the software suite, according to a report in the Korea Times. Haansoft has long believed its ThinkFree offering would make an excellent acquisition.

"Google will be kicking themselves for moving early on Writely," stated a Haansoft investment report in May. "You'd expect another big player such as Yahoo will be along to buy out [ThinkFree], and whoever does will give the folks at Microsoft and Google nightmares."

Kang, who studied in Canada, maintains ThinkFree is closely compatible with Microsoft Office and its key Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications.

"If you know how to use Microsoft PowerPoint, you already know how to use ThinkFree Show," Kang said in a recent television interview. "There's no learning curve."

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