Run Web-Based Apps Sans Web

SAN FRANCISCO (03/08/2000) - Web-based application suites are a good idea--when you have Web access. But when you're offline, you're off your applications.

What then?

ThinkFree.com Corp. has an answer: a Web-based suite of office applications that comes with an offline counterpart to let you keep working even when you're not online.

The ThinkFree Office suite is free of charge to users, and each account comes with 20MB of online storage space. To sign up, you simply give ThinkFree some demographic information and download the Java-based suite.

ThinkFree requires one initial download (about 2.5MB), and then additional downloads of each program you want: Write (a word processor), Calc (a spreadsheet program), or Show (a presentation program). The download took 17 minutes over a 56K connection, and approximately two minutes on a T1. Each application is about 1MB in size, and takes from four to five minutes to download over a dial-up connection.

Once you've downloaded the modules, you're in familiar territory. The interface resembles Microsoft Office, with which ThinkFree is compatible. Word documents open easily in ThinkFree Write, and vice versa, with only minor formatting losses. Saving documents was slightly trickier: I could easily save to my ThinkFree Web space or the root directory of my hard drive, but had difficulty navigating to other local subdirectories. (ThinkFree doesn't offer a shortcut to the desktop, but you can access it through your Windows folder.)I noticed a slight delay when using the online version of ThinkFree Word. I experienced almost no delay with Calc, even when using the chart wizard.

ThinkFree warns that the Calc module is still an alpha version and may malfunction, but I experienced no difficulties with this application.

Breaking the Line

The offline version of ThinkFree Office is accessible through a shortcut on your desktop and through the Start menu; both of these appear after you download ThinkFree.

Even though ThinkFree offers offline capabilities, it is not positioned as an Office competitor; instead, the suite is intended as an Office companion.

"People have a hard time shaking their old habits," says Ken Rhie, the president of ThinkFree. "But we see this as adding an anywhere, anytime capability, something Microsoft Office has had before."

ThinkFree office performs fast even over a dial-up connection, but its one major drawback is the download time. Are you willing to wait almost 30 minutes to download a suite of office applications, when you likely already have one on your PC?

And you will have to download any upgrades that come along. Web-based suites are advertised as offering seamless upgrades, and while ThinkFree will automatically download its upgrade for you, you still must wait it out. The same goes for using a different computer. You can access ThinkFree from any PC while you're on the road, but you'll have to download it again.

"It is both a blessing and a curse," Rhie admits. "If you're working on a slow connection, then it takes time to upgrade. But you don't have to run out to the store and buy the CDs."

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