ThinkFree Web app outshines Office

It sounds too good to be true: free word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs that are compatible with their Microsoft Office counterparts and that work in a browser.

That’s the promise of ThinkFree, a Web service that offers all this, and more. I looked at the beta of the new version, which debuts today, and despite a few features that aren’t working quite right yet (such as downloading and sharing PowerPoint and Excel files), I’m sold on the service.

If you’re already a registered ThinkFree user, the new version will load automatically when you log in. The two biggest changes in this release are the Ajax-based Quick Edit for text files, and the increase in maximum storage from 30MB to a whopping 1GB. (Individual files can be no larger than 10MB.)

QuickEdit is designed to let you make simple changes to a text file, but this mode gives you fewer options than you get in the service’s Java-based word processor (which opens when you select the file and click the Power Edit option). For example, you can’t save the file with a new name in Quick Edit, and fewer fonts and formatting options are provided.

From the main ThinkFree window you get an Explorer-like view of your files and folders, as well as a snapshot of your storage use and messages. Links to your recent files appear on the top of the main screen, and a convenient Move To option makes it easy for you to reorganize your files and folders. A drop-down menu in each file’s listing lets you view, e-mail, download, rename, delete, or publish the file to a blog.

All the Word Processor You Need

In fact, ThinkFree’s full-blown word processor has all the features most people will ever need, including automatic table generation, auto-correct options, and an array of styles and formatting choices. It can save files in the .doc, .rtf, and .txt formats, or as PDFs. I was able to upload several .doc files I created in Word, edit them in the ThinkFree word processor, and then download and open them in Word as if they’d never left (with all the changes in place, of course). I also e-mailed links to the documents to non-ThinkFree users, and while they weren’t able to save the files locally, they could view and copy them.

But there’s no need to e-mail the files to other ThinkFree users. Instead, you can simply use the service’s sharing options to provide them with full access to the documents. You’re even able to see who else viewed, downloaded, or worked on the file, when they accessed it, and the number of times the file was viewed, downloaded, and revised. (You get the same options for your spreadsheet and presentation files, although there’s no Quick Edit option for these file types.)

PDFs in an Instant

The ThinkFree spreadsheet is a close approximation of Excel, featuring many of the same sorting, formatting, and charting options. I didn’t test any spreadsheets with formulas, but many database, engineering, statistical, mathematical, and other functions are included. As with the word processor, all the formatting and other editing changes I made with the ThinkFree tool to a file originally created in Excel were present and accounted for when I reopened the file in Excel on my PC.

ThinkFree pulls off one neat trick that even Office apps can’t handle without an add-in program: automatic conversion of your files to PDFs. Simply click the “Save as PDF” option on the File menu and choose a destination folder. Seconds later your PDF is ready to view and share (the pop-up window says the process may take as long as 30 seconds, but I created several PDFs, and none took longer than a few seconds).

Another nice ThinkFree feature that’s missing in Office is the ability to tag files (you can also add comments to them). The tags make it easier to retrieve related files, although the service’s built-in search function worked plenty fast for me without any keywords assigned to the files. In addition, ThinkFree published an application programming interface in March to facilitate mash-ups similar to those that use the Flickr photo-sharing service, the bookmark service, and Google Maps. (A mash-up is a Web site or Web application that combines content from multiple sources into an integrated experience.) Sharing tags with these services could lead to some powerful new applications, although this is probably beyond the scope of the average ThinkFree user.

Browser Limitations

Working on text files, spreadsheets, and presentations in a browser is handy, but you do have to make a few minor sacrifices. The most noteworthy of these is window size: In ThinkFree, the files display in in a window that takes up about 60 percent of the screen. The company’s logo and a row of buttons for downloading, previewing, editing, sharing, and publishing the file appear at the top of the window, and a pane on the right side shows your messages and the current file’s comments and keywords. Expect to find text ads in that space in the future, as well as elsewhere on the service’s pages. The shrunken workspace is a small inconvenience (think of it as reverting to a 15-inch monitor), but it’s an adjustment if you’re used to seeing your files in a full-size window.

The service’s beta underpinnings were evident in a couple of glitches I encountered as I tested it: I wasn’t able to open a PDF and PowerPoint presentation that I had e-mailed to myself, and while I could open an e-mailed spreadsheet, I couldn’t download it or save it locally. However, even with a few beta bumps, the service is impressive. The large amount of storage and the easy sharing and collaboration make it ideal for workgroups. In fact, the company recently released a server edition, and it plans to offer small and midsize businesses a subscription service–without ads–later this year. I have a feeling the Microsoft Office folks are quaking in their boots, and if they aren’t, they should be.