Thursday, April 27, 2006

ThinkFree Online

ThinkFree Office Online

ThinkFree Online

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While web-based office apps seem to be popping out of the woodwork almost daily—ajaxWrite, Writely, zoho, Num Sum—ThinkFree has been trying to take the productivity software market online since 1999. Today ThinkFree releases a major update to its suite, upgrading free online storage space from 30MB to 1GB and adding a new lightweight AJAX-based collaboration feature and the ability to apply folksonomy to a document through "tagging" (very Web 2.0). Another Web 2.0 feature of the suite is Mashup—when a web application incorporates functionality with other web services. In ThinkFree's case, the combination is with Flickr for inserting pictures into documents now, and later the company plans integrating Google and Yahoo for maps, and with for shared bookmarking.

ThinkFree uses both AJAX and Java. The company admits that AJAX is more portable in that it doesn't require a plug-in, but they contend that Java is needed to provide true Microsoft Office compatibility and functionality. Solutions like ajaxWrite can mimic an installed word processor interface with some success, but ThinkFree's take is that they don't want to limit users to one browser, as ajaxWrite does. And ThinkFree goes a lot farther than ajaxWrite in mimicking Microsoft Office functionality. Note that the office suite doesn't include a database app, so it's not really a complete replacement for Microsoft Office.

ThinkFree Online will be free; it's supported by banner ads, contextual ads based on what's in your document (similar to Google's Gmail ad strategy), and search ads. The company also hopes to lure users into upgrading to premium services like additional storage and ad-free operation.

ThinkFree Online's New Look

Webtop and Online Storage

When you first start using ThinkFree Office Online, the first page you'll see is the "Webtop." This is the page with buttons for the three office applications, recent files, your online document folders, messages, and information on your account, such as used disk space and "points." The page also offers buttons for uploading files to your gigabyte of free online storage, and for sharing, publishing, and deleting documents.

Even while writing this article, the advantage of having your document stored online is very evident. Since the article was written partly at home and partly at the office, having it live in one place, without the need to send it back and forth in email attachments, was a definite boon. And if you're mostly working with word-processing documents or spreadsheets, ThinkFree's free 1GB of online storage can go a long way. For presentations, the file size becomes more of an issue.

You can upload any kind of file you want in your disk space—even an .exe file. Recent files is a handy shortcut on the ThinkFree home page.

A company rep said they're still working on the details of the "points" program. Users will be able to exchange points for services, such as more storage space, template and clip art downloads, or even additional features in future releases. Users will also be able to gain points by being good citizens, publishing popular files to others, commenting, tagging, rating, inviting others to join. You get a thousand points for signing up, and 100 points for getting an acquaintance to sign up; you can also buy points in increments of one thousand per dollar.

You can add as many folders as you want, but there's no hierarchical nesting: All the folders are visible at the same level on the Webtop. It would be nice if each of the areas on this management page and your My Office page had some associated help links. Perhaps the folks at ThinkFree will add this as the product evolves.

You can start a new document in any of the three "power edit" tools—Write, Calc, or Show—or you can choose Quick Edit.

The ThinkFree Webtop
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The Quick edit button launches a popup prompting for a filename, then launches the Quick Editor. If you just click on the file, you'll get the third mode of display: Preview. This lets you see any of the three document types without any editing capability.

If you click on your user name, you get to your account settings:

The Setting page
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Creating a New File
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Clicking on one of the office application buttons yields this dialog, allowing you to choose whether you want to use Quick Edit or Power Edit, which brings us to a discussion of the apps themselves.

ThinkFree Write

The first time you start any of the "power edit" tools, there's about a half-minute delay while the java code is downloaded to your system. After this initial delay, starting up the apps takes only a couple of seconds. The new version of ThinkFree gives you two ways to edit documents: With the AJAX-based Quick Edit tool, or through Power Edit, which opens the appropriate fuller-featured java-based application, Write, Show, or Calc.

Quick Edit lets you do quite a few things in word processing documents, such as drag-and-drop editing, inserting tables and pictures, and formatting text font, size, and color. There's even a separate Search and Replace—which already puts it ahead of ajaxWrite. You can also print and add symbols to a document in Quick Edit. But here too there's no help option—a definite usability drawback.

Quick Edit Word Processor
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We tried adding images in this tool, but they didn't appear until after we saved and reopened the document. Another time when trying to open one of our documents, we occasionally got this error:

File Sharing "Error"
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The full java word processor adds a menu bar and a far more Word-like interface:

ThinkFree Write
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When you look at the same file in Power Edit, you get the familiar squiggly red lines under words the spell checker doesn't recognize. You also get a ruler, and a help feature. But the help is pretty linear without searching for topics offered. You also get the ability to wrap text around pictures, and to export to PDF.

Unfortunately, when you click on the New Document icon, ThinkFree doesn't sprout up a new window and leave your current doc in place: You have to close the current document. You can get around this by going back to your Webtop and starting a new doc from there, but it would be nice if the button worked this way by default.

A word about cutting and pasting: There's no Paste Special command, and when you paste, for example, a formatted table from a web page into a Write doc, you lose any formatting, unlike in Word, where you have a choice to keep formatting or paste text only.

ThinkFree's autocorrect feature is welcome and quite complete, and shortcut keys like Ctrl-F, Ctrl-B, and Ctrl-I do just what they do in Word. Find and Replace, however, doesn't offer searching on formatting, for example finding any instance of text in italics.

Find and Replace
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You can insert fields (but no mail merge), text boxes, symbols, bookmarks, hyperlinks, and references, but not diagrams or objects as Word allows. There are some drawing tools at the bottom of the window for creating basic diagrams.

Formatting options are pretty robust, with styles like headings, bullets and numbering, multicolumn layouts, and dropcaps available. There's no Autoformat or Themes that Word has, but very few people probably use those anyway. Spell checking is there, but not grammar.

ThinkFree Calc

At the time of our testing, the AJAX-based Quick Edit versions of Calc and Show were not yet available. We'll be sure to update this article if we find any interesting variances in these tools from the Quick Edit version of Write.

Calc offers full Excel compatibility: We even checked that its columns go up to IV and rows down to 65,536 as Excels do. This support includes multi-tab spreadsheets and named areas. There are enough functions, accessible from a function toolbar, to satisfy all be the most deeply technical Excel users. Strangely, the Calc app offers a user dictionary, whereas Write doesn't.

In Calc, displayed graphs with no problem and offered most formatting and other chart options, but little things like making labels opaque or transparent missing.

ThinkFree Calc
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There's no Error Correction, but there aren't Excel's Goal Seek or Scenarios, and the Data menu of Excel, with all its database-like features such as Filtering and Pivot Tables, is completely absent. But again, these will only be missed by advanced users—not the vast majority of us who use Excel for general computation and charting.

Save As… lets you open from and save anywhere on your local disk as well as from your web storage space. As in the other ThinkFree apps, the Open dialog doesn't have the choice of recent documents, but of course you can see these on your Webtop. Browsing network drives just as fast as in Windows, if not sometimes faster.

Finally, you can save your spreadsheets as Scalable Vector Graphics and PDF, and even XML in addition to XLS.

ThinkFree Show

A side-by-side comparison of ThinkFree Show and Microsoft PowerPoint shows a remarkable similarity:

ThinkFree Show
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In fact, the only major features missing from Show are the ability to insert movies and sounds into your presentations and to use a macro language. Show even offers a few nicely designed presentation templates, and a good choice of transitions and animations. There are some collaboration features that Microsoft takes advantage of its NetMeeting, and PowerPoint's Set Up Show dialog offers a lot more options than Show does. But all in all, we feel that most PowerPoint users won't miss much by switching to ThinkFree Show.

Collaboration, Sharing, and Revisions

You can share a document online with anyone through email by clicking on the Share button at the top of the edit window—they needn't join ThinkFree too. An even simpler way to make a ThinkFree creation available to anyone on the planet is the Publish feature. This lets you assign any file a URL that you can send to folks who might like to see your work. But these methods don't allow for collaborative editing. For that, everyone who is to participate needs to sign up for a ThinkFree account. But when you do send a file the simple way, if the user who gets the preview clicks one of the Edit buttons at the top of the window, he'll be sent to the main ThinkFree page where he can join.

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At present, ThinkFree can save multiple revisions of a document a team is working on, but you can't see revisions in a single document as you can in Microsoft Office with the color-coded text. A ThinkFree company rep stated that they were planning to add this capability. Comments are supported, which will be visible to other members of the team sharing a doc.

Adding Tags and Comments
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There's also a basic messaging feature, but we think this is not a huge plus, as you'll already have the email of your collaborators, since they're required to use an email to sign up.

Part of ThinkFree's philosophy of making documents viewable on the web without the need for installed office applications is its iCdocs product. This basically lets any webmaster put code on his or her site that can display Office documents using JSP pages and APPLET tags so that users can view .doc, .xls, and .ppt files in their browser. So, if you wanted to put a PowerPoint presentation somewhere on your blog, iCdocs would allow you to do this. ThinkFree even has a dynamic page that automatically generates the code you need to put on your site to display the Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document. The document doesn't even have to be in a ThinkFree storage area, it can be on any FTP server, too. Continued...



ThinkFree plays well with some other web services, such as Flickr,, and several blogging services. We tried to get it to post to our LiveJournal, but that seemed to be the one major blogging API not supported. The company says that later versions of ThinkFree (which, remember, can be updated seamlessly at any time as a web-based service) will support LiveJournal.

Here's an example of how you can add a Flickr picture into your document:

Adding a Flickr Picture
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Choosing a Flickr Picture
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We were unable to test the integration with Google Maps or with at this time, but the company states these will be available soon, and we'll update this article to report any future findings.

Final Thoughts

ThinkFree's fairly full support of Microsoft Office file formats—and the fact that it's free—is great for anyone who needs to edit an Office document on the fly and to those who want to access docs from different locations without having to continually send updated email attachments. The collaboration features, especially the ability to share a file through email, will appeal to teams that need to co-edit documents and presentations.

We would wait a bit, however, before choosing ThinkFree as a company-standard business tool. ThinkFree Corp. needs to iron out some functionality and add an in-depth help feature with searching for topics. Another oddity of using this type of application is that occasionally you'll get a right-click menu for browser operations when you're not interested in, for example, going back one web page in your browsing history, but rather you just want some information about a button your mouse is over. Some, too, may hesitate to put their private documents on a web service.

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Editing in ThinkFree is by no means as snappy as with an installed program, occasionally there's the need to interact with the server over the Internet, and that always presents the possibility of delays. And finally, there's no equivalent to Access in the suite.

But we applaud all of the office functionality, the gigabyte of free space, and the collaboration features ThinkFree is offering for free, and their iCdocs service should prove useful to some webmasters.

Product: ThinkFree Online

Company: ThinkFree Corp.

Price: Free.

Pros: Free; excellent Microsoft Office compatibility; includes most useful Office features; 1GB online storage; works with web services like Flickr and map sites; nice document sharing features.

Cons: Slower than installed office apps; no database app; occasional interface quirks; no in-document revision marking; point system unclear.

Summary: ThinkFree gives you a lot considering you don't need to pay anything for it: A gigabyte of storage, Microsoft Office-compatible editors, a way to share documents and to have access to and the ability to edit them from anywhere. It's not going to put Microsoft Office out of business, but if you don't need that Office's advanced features, this free webware can be a godsend.

Rating 7