ThinkFree Finds An Office Software 'Sweet Spot' Between Microsoft And Google

ThinkFree is picking up some Microsoft Office users who don't want to move to Microsoft Office 2007, says ThinkFree chief executive T. J. Kang.
ThinkFree's new combination online-and-offline office software for enterprise users places the firm squarely between a Microsoft rock and a Google hard place. But ThinkFree chief executive T. J. Kang believes that's a good thing.

ThinkFree is picking up some Microsoft Office users who don't want to move to Microsoft Office 2007, because they like the idea that ThinkFree has document compatibility with the Microsoft product, said Kang as he introduced his firm's ThinkFree Premium edition at the recent Enterprise 2.0 show in Boston.

Still in beta, ThinkFree Premium extends the firm's existing online suite of word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software to offline applications.

"Not everybody is moving to Office 2007," said Kang in an interview. "There is some confusion in the market, and we're taking advantage of that." He said many users of older Microsoft Office versions don't like Office 2007, because there are enough changes and advancements that they have to establish training programs and help desks for the new version.

Noting that many if not most IT shops are still waiting to make a move to Windows Vista and Office 2007, Kang is aiming ThinkFree Premium at an audience that wants traditional office software that is compatible with older Microsoft Office versions, as well as advanced Web 2.0 and Java technology that deliver the ability to access documents on the Web and offline.

"All this creates issues for IT," he said. "Users look for some compatibility, they look for the same look and feel in software. ThinkFree looks and feels and behaves closer to Microsoft 2003 than it does to Microsoft 2007."

With its online origins dating back to the late 1990s when the network computer concept was heavily promoted by Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy and Oracle's Larry Ellison, ThinkFree foundered for awhile as the network computer fizzled, an idea that was ahead of its time.

Online office software has been catching on gradually and Google's move into the area with its Google Docs and Spreadsheets has helped spur the market. Kang said the search pacesetter has now sprinkled "holy water" on the concept of online software that also can be used offline with its recent Gears announcement.

"Google gives us credibility," said Kang. "But don't expect to walk into an Internet cafe and go online and use Google Docs" with Microsoft Office. While conceding that Google is moving rapidly to build an effective office software suite, Kang said the search engine company is only "somewhat" compatible with Microsoft Office files. Google has been building its office software by creating new features in-house and by acquisitions like its pickup last week of Zenter. Kang won't discuss it, but there were reports from Korea months ago that Google was interested in acquiring ThinkFree.

Kang is well aware that ThinkFree is sandwiched between two giants, and that there are other new online competitors emerging. With that in mind, Kang is aiming ThinkFree at the small and midsized business market. "I think our sweet spot will be the SMBs," he said, noting that most large enterprises are wed to Microsoft.

ThinkFree pricing aims to be attractive to smaller and medium-sized businesses, Kang said. ThinkFree will be offered for a $7 per user monthly fee beginning in August.