First Look At ThinkFree

Saturday, 2007-January-06 at 19:48

Background

In the past few years, the growth of the Web, with its promotion of open standards like HTML, XML, JavaScript, and CSS, users have come to realize that open standards and formats are their only protection against vendor lock-in and TUR.  As such many users and governments have started calling for an open file format standard for office applications.

I joined ThinkFree for the primary purpose of evaluating their online product (currently zero-price) for features that are important to myself and to smart owners & operators of small businesses, such as the ability to use whatever operating system or browser that you happen to have available.  However, I limited my testing to Windows XP and three browsers.

TUR
Technological Usage Restrictions.  Often euphemized as "digital rights management," or DRM.  TUR is the use of technological means to restrict the ways that purchasers can use the software, music, movies or other "content" that they have purchased.  This is often purported to be an anti-theft technology.  However, organized gangs of thieves have little problem overcoming the restrictions on a TURd file.

Evaluation

Interface

ThinkFree offers an AJAX interface known as "Quick Edit" and a Java applet interface ("Power Edit") styled to resemble Microsoft's office suite versions between 2000 and today.  The Java interface was unusable with Java 6 SE on any browser, taking up to a minute to respond to any click.  The Quick Edit interface was more responsive, but not comparable to either Google Docs' speed or Zoho's functionality.

The Power Edit interface is overkill—there will be some differences in working with a file that is not stored locally, so why not take advantage of the fact that users know and expect this by adapting the interface to work better with a Web-based platform?  On the other hand, the Quick Edit interface should be faster and more responsive.  Anyone that tries ThinkFree after using Google's offering will be tapping his or her fingers while waiting for a response.  Score: 7.

Section Score, Interface: 7 out of 10

File Formats

I need to point out that the computer that had Microsoft Office XP (2002) on it has been converted to GNU+Linux, so I could not make a fair assessment of *.doc compatibility.  Score: +10 (benefit of the doubt).  However, after having been informed that ODF-compatibility was just days away, I waited to give them a chance to make that feature available.  As of today, it is still not available. Score: -10 (complete and utter failure).

I uploaded a file I had created locally (*.odt, the ODF word processor format).  Once the file was uploaded, the site gave me a message about it being in an unrecognized format.  The only function that was available was "delete".  Score: 0 (at least it let me upload it, but with a well-documented open file format, they should easily be able to implement the needed functionality; there is no excuse for not doing so.)

Section Score, File Formats: 0 out of 30.

Functionality

I created a one-page, fairly simple document (seven paragraphs of text, one main heading, one table, and five secondary headings) using the Quick Edit interface.  I went to save it—I had only one choice for file format: *.doc.  I then printed a copy and downloaded it.  You guessed it—I could not choose another file format.  Score: -5 (only because I am giving them credit for *.doc)  I logged back in the next day to edit it, but the Power Edit interface could never connect to the file, which it took about 45 seconds to over a minute to decide.  Neither could the file viewer connect with the latest version of the document, giving a message about the file not yet being converted to HTML.  Export to PDF wasn’t functional.  Score: -10 (PDF is another openly-published standard; since they claim to support it, they really should support it.)

The application did not work at all in Opera 9.  It was barely usable (Quick Edit) on Firefox and K-Meleon.  It was so unpleasant to use that I did not try IE7, Mozilla, SeaMonkey, or any of the browsers that I also planned to test on Linux.  Score: -10 (Opera compatibility is apparently not easy [Google Docs also does not work well with Opera], but Firefox 2 and K-Meleon both use very recent editions of the Gecko browsing engine.)

Section Score, Functionality: -25 out of 30

Summary

 All in all, dealing with ThinkFree was a horrible and frustrating experience.  I would not recommend it.  ThinkFree is in Beta status, so it is hoped that they will make some major changes in the next few months.  I will re-evaluate ThinkFree soon, this time using the scale used for Google Docs.  I hope to be able to recommend them to people that I talk to.  In order for this to happen, they will need to future-proof users' documents by making them available in ODF (upload/download/publish)

Entry filed under: Computers, ODF, Software, XML. Tags: .

Bible Study Notes: 2006-12-31 Amsterdam Trying Linux, OpenOffice.org


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