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The ThinkFree Alternative

by Daniel H. Steinberg

It's been a great couple of weeks for Mac word-processing fans. Andrew Stone wrote a cool article in the March 2002 edition of MacTech magazine titled "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Mac OS X?" Stone was developing for Mac OS X long before it was released. His articles are always entertaining and informative.

This one shows you how to "create a multi-document word processor that has support for graphics, colors, rulers, alignment, super and subscripting, baseline control, UNICODE, kerning, and it reads and writes RTF and RTFD files" with ten lines of code. Stone's point is that there is a lot of power provided in Cocoa that Apple is giving you with its developer tools.

Meanwhile, Andrew Trevorrow announced the availability of OzTeX 5.0 for Mac OS X. OzTeX is a Mac implementation of the TeX typesetting package. In the old days, you'd stop and write symbols and complex equations into a document by hand before copying them and sending them off.

TeX, created by Donald Knuth, allowed beautiful-looking documents to be produced in a fairly low-tech way. With the availability of inexpensive personal computers with affordable high-quality printers, amateurs could produce professional-looking documents on their own. The learning curve for TeX and LaTeX is less steep now that people have experience with XML. In fact, the XML dialect MathML derives from LaTeX. OzTeX has been so popular that the recent traffic on the newsgroup has been from people agreeing to repay their shareware fee because they have derived so much value from the $30 lifetime fee.

There have been other recent releases, but the one I've been waiting for is ThinkFree Office 2.0 from ThinkFree. This quick article is intended to be a conversation starter and not the final word on the product.

ThinkFree Office 2.0, the low-cost alternative to Microsoft Office, is now available on Mac OS X. Sure, this has been tried before. Star Office, the Office Suite acquired by Sun, promised a high-performance, low-cost alternative to Microsoft Office written in Java. Creating a powerful office suite in Java would have provided Sun with the canonical example it needed of the value of the Java platform to the typical user, while attacking a popular Microsoft product. But Sun never put enough resources into the Star Office product to get the performance and polish that it needed to appeal to the general market.

ThinkFree is taking its product directly to end-users and not just geeks and early adopters. Apple had ThinkFree running on the Macs at their JavaOne booth to show off the power of Java on the Mac. ThinkFree chose instead to exhibit at recent consumer-oriented Macworld Expos in San Francisco and New York.

Free As In ...

Despite its name, ThinkFree is not, as the saying goes, free as in beer. The software costs just under $50 and provides a licensing model that is much more palatable than some of the proposals from the Pacific Northwest.

What you're buying is a combination of a yearlong subscription and a traditional application license. The best news is that for $50 you have a perpetual license to use the software you are buying, whether you purchase it as a download or on a CD. When your year is up, the software continues to work and you can use this version as long as you want to (so long as your hardware and OS continue to support it).

During the year you are entitled to the benefits of a paid subscription as well. This means that you get any patches or upgrades to the software. You also get 20 MB of Cyberdrive that you can use for your documents. As you can see from this screenshot, the main toolbar includes access to the ThinkFree versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as a local file browser and access to your Cyberdrive. For an extra fee you can increase the size of your Cyberdrive.

ThinkFree Menu
ThinkFree Office allows you to connect directly to a 20MB
Cyberdrive to store your documents.

So what happens at the end of the year? If you want to continue to use the Cyberdrive and want to keep receiving upgrades, then you pay a renewal fee (that they currently estimate will be $29.95). If you don't want the Cyberdrive or upgrades and don't expect to use the free email support included with their subscription then just continue using the software.

In these days of dotcoms that come and go, your bigger concern is what happens to all of your documents if ThinkFree doesn't succeed. First, you will still have the use of the software you used to create the files and second, the default file formats are the Microsoft Office file formats.

How Well Does It Work?

I had mixed success with ThinkFree Office in Mac OS X. It was very easy to install and use. You will be given the option of taking advantage of hardware acceleration. At this time, I'd recommend (and ThinkFree recommends) that you decline this option.

At a Macworld presentation, ThinkFree's TJ Kang mentioned problems with Apple's implementation of hardware acceleration that they're waiting to be addressed. When choosing the hardware-acceleration option, there were times when my Mac was unresponsive. I got the spinning disk and was unable to force-quit ThinkFree Office. There was a considerable lag in getting mouse clicks read by other applications, and, for the first time in months, I actually had to reboot my Mac. I didn't have this problem without the hardware acceleration selected.

One thing I like about ThinkFree is that when I import Microsoft Office documents, it warns me what might be lost in the conversion.

Dialog Box
Not only can ThinkFree open Microsoft Word documents for editing, it tells you what might be lost in the conversion.

For the most part, the changes weren't critical. They were, however, sometimes puzzling and other times annoying. Warning: I'm about to whine that a $50 piece of software doesn't do everything a $500 piece of software does.

Here is a piece of a document that I wrote in Word:

Original Word Doc
An original Microsoft Word Document. Click for larger image.

Here's the same portion opened in ThinkFree's Write application:

Word Doc in ThinkFree
The same document opened in ThinkFree. Click for larger image.

Notice that the page break is in a different place. This may not seem like a big deal, but as you compare the two screenshots you'll see that in Word the document is a 26-page chapter and in Write it is a 31-page chapter. All I did in Write is open the Word document. I was on the phone with my coauthor and he was telling me about changes that needed to be made on page 25, and I was six pages away from what he was looking at.

More importantly, when I was setting up this screenshot, I had to keep resizing the window to make sure I had the exact same amount of text visible in both shots. Every time I resized the ThinkFree screen, the text would return to the first page of the document (hence the 1/31 notation at the bottom of the screen). This drove me nuts. I'm always resizing this or that, or making a small adjustment. I don't expect my word processor to forget where I am.

I almost never use Excel. On the other hand, many of the people I know and work with do. They often attach an Excel spreadsheet in an email message to me. I appreciate that with ThinkFree's Calc application I can read the documents, make the minor changes they require, and send them back.

If this is your pattern in general for Microsoft Office documents, then ThinkFree is a nice, inexpensive solution for reading and making minor changes to documents. I would hate to have to buy Office just to have access to binaries that would otherwise be unreadable. On still another hand (yes, that brings us to three), I do own Microsoft Office because many of the companies I consult for use it.

I frequently use PowerPoint. ThinkFree's Show application allows you to create and edit PowerPoint demonstrations. I have had good luck working with presentations that originated as PowerPoint documents and were displayed with Show. But when I edited these documents with Show and redisplayed them as PowerPoint presentations I had some difficulties. Images moved up to slides with which they weren't associated. There were awkward breaks in text. Where once text broke between words, now it would break in the middle of a word. Here's a screenshot of a slide that quotes from the intent of the Facade Design Pattern from the classic Gang of Four book:

Editing PowerPoint
ThinkFree allows you to open and edit PowerPoint documents too.

Summing It Up

Although ThinkFree still has some issues to work out, it can be the right choice in many situations. If you have budget constraints, ThinkFree's Office is an affordable way to access and produce Microsoft Office documents. For those who are adamant about working in a Microsoft-free environment, ThinkFree provides an attractive alternative. Use the Talkback to share your experience with and thoughts on ThinkFree.