Review: ThinkFree Office Suite Attracts Users -- And Google - InformationWeek

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Review: ThinkFree Office Suite Attracts Users -- And Google

The online Office look-alike offers a free word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation package, along with social networking.

Whenever rumors start circulating that Google is interested in another online application, it's tempting to try that application out and see how well it ticks. In the case of ThinkFree, an online office suite that the rumor mill says Google is looking at, it ticks pretty well.

ThinkFree is a Java-based advertising-supported online office suite that includes three applications: a word processor (Write), a spreadsheet (Calc), and a presentation package (Show), along with a sprinkling of social-networking features. Unlike many Ajax apps, which have popped up over the last year or so, ThinkFree started its life back in 2000 as a traditional freeware application, eventually moving online.

ThinkFree's simple desktop interface makes it easy to access your documents.
Click image to enlarge.

Certainly one advantage ThinkFree has over many online apps is that it acts like a real suite rather than a group of separate features. The My Office page, which is the launch-point for users, centers on a list of all the user's ThinkFree documents (which kind of document is indicated by a colored icon); recently accessed documents are listed across the top. Down the left side is a status panel that displays information such as how much of your 1-Gbyte storage space you're using and the folders you have created to store your documents in.

ThinkFree is an advertising-supported service (and, like so many online apps, seems to be in a constant state of beta). There are text ads for sponsored links in a separate window on the right side; interestingly, the window can actually be dragged closed, hiding the ads from advertising-allergic users. However, by doing so, you also hide your comments box and tags, which is a clever way to offer users a choice.

An Office Look-And-Feel
When ThinkFree says it's a Microsoft Office clone, it really means it. The look-and-feel of the three included apps will be very familiar to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint users -- so much so that the learning curve is nearly nonexistent. If you don't use many formatting commands, the Quick Edit mode offers a simpler feature set and less crowded interface. But the Power Edit mode gives you the full (or nearly full) MS Office treatment with drop-down menus, toolbars, icons, etc. (Be aware, however, that because ThinkFree uses a Java applet for this mode, you're going to have to wait several seconds for your document to load, especially the first time.)

What ThinkFree does is impressive. If you are, say, creating a word-processing document, you get formatting, headers, and footers, page breaks, rulers, auto shapes, different colors, bookmarks, formatting, drawing, etc. There are even additions such as a button that lets you create a quick PDF copy of your document.

This is not to say that if it's in Word it's in ThinkFree -- for example, there is no Track Changes (you can access past versions of your document, but you can't compare two versions). But the feature set is extensive -- and the same goes for the spreadsheet and the presentation applications.

Do You Want Social Networking With That?
These days, no online application is complete without some sort of sharing and/or social networking components, and ThinkFree pretty much runs the gamut. You can push a document to a blog or send it via e-mail. You can share documents with other ThinkFree users, assigning them either read-only or co-author privileges. You can interact with other members of your group via the Bulletin Board feature (which also includes the ability to share files -- ThinkFree allows you to store up to 1-Gbtye of data). And you can take part in ThinkFree's Doc Exchange, an area for free-flowing document swapping.

While ThinkFree is a free suite, there's also an enterprise Server Edition that includes administrative features for $30 annually. In addition, ThinkFree has instituted a system where you earn "points" (I earned 100 by signing up) which you can exchange for storage space, clip art, and other features "to be added in future releases."

Assuming that the rumors are correct, where will ThinkFree fit into Google's product lineup? Google already has a popular word processor and spreadsheet application, but not a presentation application. It's possible that Google might pick up only ThinkFree's Show -- or it might meld ThinkFree's efficient interface and social networking components with Google's other offerings.

In any case, along with other free office suites such as, ThinkFree's online suite may give users who are nervous about Office 2007 something to think about.

ThinkFree Online Beta
ThinkFree Corp.
Price: Free
Summary: ThinkFree is an online office suite that goes the extra mile to look and work like Microsoft Office -- but what would Google do with it?

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