ThinkFree Online Software: Web-based Java Applications Come of Age

For over twenty-five years, one of the most promising potential uses of the Internet has been distributed processing. While database applications like e-mail, calendars, and address books, to name only a few, have been developed through several generations, office applications like word processing and spreadsheets have lagged behind. There are many reasons for this lack of development, but ThinkFree has rendered them all moot with release 3 of their Online Office software.

ThinkFree Office Online is programmed in Java and requires Version 1.5.0 (or higher) of the Java 2 runtime environment and a high-speed connection like DSL, cable modem, or faster. As long as your system can handle the Java requirements and has a reasonably standard graphical Web browser available, you should be able to run ThinkFree Office Online.

The initial download of the application to the local system’s cache takes a few minutes. How long depends on the connection speed, the load on the server at that time, and the configuration of the downloading computer. On my old Pentium II running Windows98 SE and a DSL Lite connection, the initial download took about ten minutes. That was aggravating, but still worth while. On a Pentium 4 system with a T3 connection, the download was less than three minutes. After the initial download, application launch is much faster.

Once the application has been downloaded, it is ready for use. Performance is not exactly snappy, but is certainly acceptable considering the nature of the program. Having software that is available from any high-speed Internet connection requires ome trade-offs, and performance is one of them.

Another of the trade-offs is richness of features. These programs are not and do not claim to be as powerful or feature-rich as their stand-alone cousins. This is an advantage in many ways, as the menu system is vastly simpler, and the hot-keys are not as numerous and thus easier to remember.

In addition to the applications themselves – Write, Calc, and Show, which are all Microsoft Office-compatible – ThinkFree also gives members thirty megabytes of online storage, more than enough for the type of work these apps are intended to do.

Let’s look at these applications in a little more detail.


The ThinkFree Office Write interface is familiar to anyone who is at all familiar with Microsoft Word. Some of the toolbar icons are a little different, and the app has a definite Java look and feel, but the comfort level is high, and the learning curve is very
flat. The dialogs, while not always as rich in choices as the Microsoft versions, are also familiar in style and layout.

Write uses Windows-compatible fonts. Lots of them. In my case, I have access to many more fonts online than I do in my local software. Fonts are scalable, with bold, italic, underline, strike-through, double strike-through, subscript, superscript, and color options. ThinkFree even thoughtfully includes a Courier New non-proportional font for those of us who need it.

Some other familiar features are cut, copy, paste, and undo/redo. Write does tables and graphics, as well, though WordArt is not available for some pretty obvious reasons. Spell checking is reasonably thorough, with a decent dictionary, but there is no Thesaurus or grammar checking available. Bullets and numbering, borders and shading, and styles and formatting make Write a very powerful word processor.

There are some features that are not available online, though. As I stated above, thesaurus and grammar checking are otably absent, as are provisions for envelope or label printing, and the page setup is not as detailed as what I am used to. Although this helps keep the application reasonable in size and performance, these are all things I like to have and use once in a while. Again, I think it is a reasonable trade-off considering all the features that are available.

ThinkFree Office Write also includes some features that are not available in Microsoft Word. One of the most useful, to me, is the ability to post documents to my blog. Write supports most popular blogging engines, including Blogger, TypePad, WordPress, and Movable Type, among others. Visit ThinkFree’s TFO Online Demo Blog to see examples.

Another really nice feature is the ability to save documents in Portable Document Format (PDF), the native Adobe Acrobat document format. This makes sharing attractive documents, reports, or brochures or posting them to a Web site quick and painless.

Though Object Linking and Embedding technology is not available online – the overhead would be enormous – portions of other documents can be copied and pasted directly into Write documents. Spreadsheet data is pasted as tab-delimited text which can be easily converted to a table and formatted for appearance.


As you might expect from the name, Calc is ThinkFree Office Online’s spreadsheet application. Like Write, Calc is stripped down for performance. Also like Write, the interface is a Java-influenced variation on the Microsoft Office scheme – familiar enough to be comfortable but different enough to avoid potential legal problems.

Calc includes 300 spreadsheet functions that use Microsoft Excel-style syntax. With the provided functions, users can produce virtually any spreadsheet they want to. With 80 different chart styles to choose from, presentation of the data is also very flexible.

Cell formatting has very much the same features as Excel. All of the ThinkFree Office applications use the same fonts, so compatibility of style between documents is easy. Multiple sheets within the same workbook allow the same conveince of referencing and presenting data as a stand-alone program.

About the only thing missing from Excel are the advanced features that few people need or even understand. Pivot Tables are missing, as are the other advanced data functions. Sorting is available, which is a huge plus in my book, as is Spell Check. Cell-level and sheet-level protection, locking, and hiding are available with a password option.


ThinkFree Office Show has all the features you have come to know in Microsoft PowerPoint. You can choose from one of the available templates or build your own customized slide master. Show offers around 140 drawing tools for making charts, graphs, or even free-hand drawings. 300+ Clip Art images are also available, or you can upload your own images.

Many slide transitions and animations are available, as well. The font capabilities mirror those of the other two applications, and standard formatting tools like bullets, centering, and justification are also present.

ThinkFree Office Show gives you all the tools you need to create or edit Microsoft PowerPoint-compatible presentations over any high-speed Internet connection.

Other considerations

As with all software, there are considerations of availability, security, and data loss with ThinkFree Office 3 Online. These take on new implications with the addition of a remote server.


With the software running on a server in ThinkFree’s Data Center, availability of the software at any particular time moves out of the user’s control. I have not been using this software long enough to make any judgments about uptime. This is something each user has to decide before deciding to depend heavily on a distributed application. Availability is also
influenced by Internet conditions, both at local ISP’s and worldwide. Interruptions in service are unpredictable and should also weigh on the decision to use this software.

Another potential problem is the possibility that the company will terminate the free use of their software at some undetermined point in the future. By using their software on their server, you have to accept this as a condition and a possibility. While I certainly hope ThinkFree does not follow this path, I have seen many other free services fall victim to the
profit motive over the years.

Data Loss

As with availability, data loss depends on a remote server under someone else’s control. Backups are crucial. One of the more useful features of ThinkFree Office 3 Online is the ability to save files locally as well as on the remote server. Files can also be downloaded directly from the folder listing without having to launch the apps.

The dictum “save early and save often” is never more true than when working online. The vagaries of long-distance electronic communications dictate a certain level of paranoia about data loss due to sudden communication failure. ThinkFree Office 3 Online does save backup copies of your work if communication is suddenly lost, so data may be recoverable. As in all cases, however, your data is only as good as your last save (or your last backup).


Security is another hot-button issue with online applications. Due to the open nature of the Internet, data can be intercepted. I also do not believe in the concept of unbreakable security. Any security that a person can create can be broken by another person who is motivated enough. Again, paranoia should rule your decisions in this regard.


Finally, ThinkFree Office 3 Online is free software. The company has to make money somehow, or they would not be in business long. In today’s Internet environment, this means ads. I think that pop-up ads are a small price to pay for the use of such full-featured, powerful, and compatible software. You will have to make your decision about that.

Supported File Formats

Each of the ThinkFree Office Online applications supports the corresponding Microsoft Office file format as well as several other export options:

Microsoft Word 97-2003 (DOC)
Rich Text Format (RTF)
Plain Text (TXT)
Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG)
Portable Document Format (PDF)

Microsoft Excel Workbook (XLS)
Extensible Markup Language (XML)
Hypertext Markup Laguage (HTM, HTML)
Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG)
Tab-Delimited Text (TXT)
Comma-Separated Values (CSV)
Portable Document Format (PDF)

Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (PPT)
Microsoft PowerPoint Show (PPS)
Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG)
Hypertext Markup Language (HTM, HTML)
Portable Document Format (PDF)

Support options for ThinkFree Office Online are sparse. There is a very limited Knowledgebase available for browsing or searching and an online form for presenting inquiries to the Support Team. Help may also be available by e-mail. If this makes you uncomfortable, just ask yourself what you should get for free.

Other Versions
ThinkFree has a standalone version of their software available for download on a 30-day trial basis. They also have a packaged version for purchase. The cost is US $49.95. ThinkFree Show is also available in an iPod edition, which allows storing, transporting, and running presentations from an Apple iPod. For editing the presentations, you will need a
computer to which you can attach your iPod. A projector attached to the computer will be helpful in showing the presentation.

ThinkFree Office Online is a major application suite that can benefit individuals or businesses in many different ways. By leveraging the platform-independence of the Java environment and the World Wide Web, ThinkFree has created a true cross-platform application suite. By making their applications medium-featured, they lower the load on local computers and eliminate many seldom- or never-used features. Simplified menus and tool bars mean a flat learning curve and make this software ideal for training.

This is how the Internet should work for us.

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