Times continue to change. Microsoft thinks that Office and other applications can be browser-based, and available online—for a fee. ThinkFree Office thinks that’s ready to happen now, today.
Does the future mean your Mac is nothing more than a computer terminal connected to the Internet?
Crazier things have happened to computer users. What Netscape envisioned for the Internet about 12 years ago was destroyed by Microsoft. Guess what? They’re back.
What’s back? Applications which reside, not on your computer, but on someone else’s computer someplace else. Mac360’s guest writer, Tom Coppinger of Dublin, Ireland explores the world of ThinkFree Online.
Breaking Free with ThinkFree Online
It usually starts when you’re two years old, maybe three. Parents start drilling into your head the value of sharing. Barney is on TV, and he’s preaching it, too. You go to pre-school, and by golly those teachers are at it, too.
Sharing, sharing, sharing. Usually, though, the innate self-centered Id of each child manages to beat down all that indoctrination.
“Sharing is caring,” we inform the child. “Mine,” the child informs us.
Grudgingly, reluctantly, we become civilized, and start sharing. We share our books, our music, our movies, and most of all, we love to share our opinions. Or, fashionably, blogging.
At a glance, the Internet is the ideal medium for sharing. Shopping, banking, games, chatting, or simple information collection, it offers just about every kind of environment you could think of.
Except for the office. We’re still emailing our spreadsheets and documents to each other. Where is the on-line environment for sharing these documents?
This is what is on offer from ThinkFree Online. The virtual office environment.
ThinkFree are aligned with Apple in freeing us all from the shackles of Microsoft. They offer far more affordable alternatives to the Office Suite in the form of Write (pow! take that Word!), Calc (bop! take that Excel!), and Show (slam! take that PowerPoint!).
Now they’ve taken it one step further with ThinkFree Online, a business office which is online. All the usual ThinkFree apps are there, as downloadable Java applets. There’s a lot more to the mix. They’re offering 1 GB of space for your documents. You can import photos from flicker.com. (sadly, it does not import from iPhoto.)
You can open a document—be it Word or Excel or Powerpoint—straight from your hard drive. You have a ‘Publish’ option, which lets you slap your document onto a Web page or blog. There is a ‘Webtop’ folder (cute, eh?) where your documents initially reside, but you can create a hierachy of subfolders if you want, and move stuff around.
The most important feature is Sharing. Every document in your ‘Office’ can be shared with others signed up to ThinkFree Online. You can ‘invite’ select persons (an email is sent out), or open the document up to everyone. More importantly, you can specify whether the Shared document can just be viewed, or actively edited.
Ever sit around a campfire and start a ghost story, passing it around to everyone, so you end up with a unique story created by all? Sharing in ThinkFree Online offers this experience. (Okay, so maybe you don’t create ghost stories in spreadsheets.) Shared documents can be created, edited, and updated in a collaborative effort, the same as in any networked ‘real’ office.
I gave ThinkFree Office a whirl, opening existing documents from both my Mac at home, and a PC at work, sharing them between two different accounts. It works. Slowly. There is the usual hassle of signing up. Then the first time you use an applet, it has to install certain components on your machine.
There is a certain amount of waiting. It doesn’t work at the speed you may be used to, from an application resident on your hard drive.
The functionality, though, is all there. It looks, feels, and behaves like Word and Excel. It opens MS Office documents without a problem (albeit with hesitation). But it isn’t a Microsoft product. You can feel the shackles falling away from your wrists.
There are a few kinks to work out yet. It’s a bit slow. It isn’t an intuitive environment. Try and open an Excel document from within ThinkFree Write, and . . . it won’t. It would be nice if Calc stepped into the breach and took over, but without the guiding light of an OS, they’re not that smart.
ThinkFree Online has some job ahead of it, convincing the business world to use its online environment. Most businesses already have the Microsoft Office suite, why should they bother with online tools?
For three reasons: its cross-platform. It can be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection. And it’s free. All the functionality of MS Office, and none of the cost.
Students, home users, and small businesses would all welcome such an affordable alternative. And if I may speculate a bit, the future shape of computers may demand such an environment. What shape? Think thin. Thin, tablet computers without a hard drive, and room for only the slimmest of applications.
Microsoft Office? That bloatware won’t fit. ThinkFree Online? Of course. Download the applets when you need them.
Microsoft know this. They have their own environment in place, OfficeLive. Live Basic is nothing more than web and blog space. Live Collaboration offers more of the same functionality as Thinkfree Office. A couple of differences. First, Live Collaboration is a Beta. They offer a mere 50 MB of space for your documents, not 1 GB. After the Beta, it will cost $29.95 a month. (They must be joking.) And, of course, it doesn’t work with Macs.
If you already have a .Mac account, you’re already sharing your photos and movies. But if you are a small business operating on a shoestring, and your partners and/or salespeople are spread to the wind, ThinkFree offers unique solutions. And, perhaps a glimse to the future.
Are you ready for applications online? Will you pay a monthly fee to use an Office suite of applications that exist and are only available on the Internet, and not on your Mac? Are there benefits to online applications? What are the drawbacks? Share your comments with other Mac360 readers.