I had an opportunity to chat with Jonathan Crow of ThinkFree last week and he showed me some of what's new in the online productivity suite. What struck me as the most exciting thing ThinkFree is doing is their recognition that an online alternative to Microsoft Office must be able to address the simple fact that many of us are neither always connected nor do we necessarily want all of our data to live somewhere other than on our own PC.
Fellow ZDNet blogger and Web 2.0 champion Richard MacManus spoke with TJ Kang, CEO of ThinkFree last week, and is sharing his thoughts about the company's direction and the latest release of the software at his Web 2.0 Explorer blog. In his first post, Richard explains that ThinkFree's vision is to wean users from the deskbound Microsoft Office experience. It's an interesting idea conceptually but not one I believe most businesses are anywhere near ready to embrace.
ThinkFree's strategy differs from pure-play online offerings. They offer three different local versions of their software that work in concert with the online version of their suite which provides word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications that look and work very much like their counterparts in Microsoft's suite. Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux platforms are supported. A desktop version (the Download Edition) of the suite is available for $49.95. More interesting is the Portable Edition ($49.95) for U3 flash devices which allows you to carry the suite with you for use on any computer. This mobile version, combined with the online service present one of the more compelling alternatives, in the truest sense of the word, to Microsoft Office and it's current PC-centric work model. An iPod version specifically for creating, viewing, and displaying presentations, ThinkFree Show ($29.95) is also available.
I can easily envision a workflow where confidential personal and business documents reside on the U3 device or your PC while documents you wish to share and collaborate on with others reside in your online account. This dual-location paradigm addresses many of the concerns I have expressed in the past about purely online offerings and provides a level of mobility and portability that is unique in my experience. The iPod-based presentation manager is an interesting concept for people who present often, particularly as an easy-to-carry backup to a laptop (because stuff does happen).
But can a Java-based application suite provide the same degree of performance as Microsoft Office or OpenOffice. While ThinkFree is adding more AJAX code to their suite with each release, the telltale signs of a Java-based suite are obvious. Launching the application is decidedly slower than the desktop applications they compare themselves to. Crow did point out that the applets required for the online version are cached locally on your PC during that first launch which provides a noticeable improvement in subsequent performance. But even with the Download Edition installed locally, performance simply isn't as snappy as either MS Office or OpenOffice.
The feature set, while nowhere as extensive as either of the alternatives, is probably sufficient for a large population, if not the majority, of users. I had no trouble using the Write application to take notes during my interview with Crow or to produce a number of documents requiring significant formatting. Uploading a document created on the desktop or saving a document created online to my PC were easy tasks and validate the concept of ThinkFree's hybrid approach. A nice mashup with Flickr allows you to search for images based on their Creative Commons license for use in your documents. Crow says a future release wil allow you to integrate your own Flickr account with your ThinkFree Office account.
But issues remain. In a post today, Richard addresses those related to ThinkFree's use of Java as a symptom of what happens when "normal" users encounter an application requiring a background application or service that needs to be downloaded or updated before the desired experience can be had. It's not just Java that's an issue here - it could just as easily be the latest version of .Net or Flash that creates an obstacle. And the consensus seems to be that most "normal" users won't bother. They'll see the warning that their system is incompatible, shrug their shoulders, and move on.
I have to admit that I'm getting a bit tired of the continual put-downs being heaped on "average Joe" in any number of blog conversations. This particular prediction does ring true though - especially for non-technical Windows users who are increasingly reticent about installing stuff on their PCs that are "required" by some web site. Any requirement that forces a decision like this is likely to lose many potential adopters who are increasingly wary about "breaking" their OS installations..
Some of the comments on Richard's first post also complain about poor server performance and downtime on the ThinkFree site which is a real hardship for those who take the "everything online" approach to Web 2.0 applications. The online app I rely on most is Gmail and, while it's almost never "down", I do experience too many "Sorry, the system is currently unavailable. Please try again in a few seconds." messages. And that's a service backed by the Googleplex - an infrastructure smaller Web 2.0 companies can only dream about putting behind their applications.
At this point, I recommend ThinkFree Office only to those with ready access to high speed connectivity, reasonably powerful systems capable of delivering decent Java performance, and an adventurous spirit. There are still bumps in the road and this is not yet a solution I feel comfortable recommending for mission-critical business work. That having been said, ThinkFree Office is a big step in the right direction and it addresses my biggest concerns about an online office productivity with a (currently) unique hybrid approach.