ThinkFree is ahead of its time. Probably much too far ahead of its time. But if ThinkFree eventually rises above its competition, this will be the most likely reason: ThinkFree has the right idea about how to exploit the power of both client and server in its attempt to bring a Java-based office suite to the Internet. Because the suite is in Java, ThinkFree wants to use the portability of Java to make its office software popular in the growing Linux desktop market.
The need ThinkFree hopes to fill is obvious. Few people I know like to lug around a notebook computer. It would be more convenient to be able to walk up to any computer connected to the Internet and work from there. You can practically accomplish this today via Web-based e-mail, calendaring, and other such software - although you can't work in style that way. Most Web-based software is in the dark ages.
Companies such as Microsoft and Sun Microsystems are rushing to provide a more palatable solution. Microsoft wants to offer a thin-client Windows Terminal Server approach, putting all the processing at the server and using the Web-connected PC only as a dumb display.
Sun wants to push just a little more processing to the PC by basing its Star Portal on a native back end and a Java-based front end. The front-end PC is still not much more than a dumb display terminal, but it leverages the power of the PC a little better than Windows Terminal Server.
I believe ThinkFree has the best approach. Its application suite is entirely Java-based. Almost all of the Java code gets downloaded to your PC. Once it's there, it leverages the processing power of the PC, using the server only when necessary. Although you can store your files locally, you usually store all your documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on the server. In theory, this means you can walk up to any Net-connected kiosk and do your work from there.
If you want to carry your work with you in order to get things done on an airplane, for example, ThinkFree does that as well. You can copy your files to the server later. Right now you have to do that manually. ThinkFree does plan to create a synchronisation program like the PalmPilot so that you can sync up the files from your notebook easily.
But all this is just theory at the moment. I don't see how ThinkFree can get a foothold on the market until we solve Internet bandwidth problems. This is the complaint people have had all along with Java-based suites, and it is a point well taken.
Fortunately, the excruciating wait only occurs the first time you run ThinkFree. After that, the pain factor only runs somewhere between a stubbed toe and a migraine headache, depending, I suppose, on the speed of your connection and the phase of the moon. Once it is installed, ThinkFree runs reasonably well. I suspect it will run much faster once you are able to use the latest Java run time for Linux from Sun along with the Inprise Linux-based just-in-time compiler.
But until the bandwidth supports a fast download time, I would recommend that ThinkFree change its strategy for getting its suite into the hands of customers. Instead of expecting people to download the suite, perhaps they should cut some deals to preinstall the suite along with other software such as Netscape Navigator.
Better still, ThinkFree should partner with some of the companies that plan to create Linux-based Internet appliances to get the suite preinstalled on those products. That way the suite can pop up almost instantly on those puppies. And it would be fairly simple to have the appliances check for and download updates during the wee hours of the morning.
Right now ThinkFree is free. You automatically get 20MB of disk space with each account. The corporate version will offer more features, more disk storage, and be advertisement-free. You can check out ThinkFree for yourself at www.thinkfree.com.
Look at it and let me know what you think. Does this approach to offering an Internet-based suite have a future or not? Does it have a future under Linux, where StarOffice is already fairly well-entrenched?
Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld. Reach him at nicholas_petreley@infoworld. com