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Horse to the Water

Posted by editor on March 8, 2006 at 11:15 AM PST

Will a free office suite on the web revive applets?

I forget where I noticed -- I think it was in the Java Posse's show notes while setting up a link to them for something else yesterday -- that ThinkFree Office is now available in a free applet version.

Seriously. This is how many things that how many people have been asking for for so long? Office in Java, like Corel tried and failed to do in the late 90's? Office as a free, available-everywhere web application, as famously (and incorrectly, natch) reported by Slashdot to be an imminent result of the Sun-Google deal? A totally useful end-user app written in Java? A non-trivial applet?

You'd think this would get more notice than it's gotten.

Granted, I'm a little skeptical, only because I'm a former ThinkFree Office user. I paid up for a one year subscription a while back. I wanted to believe.

And then it corrupted my presentation for the 2002 O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference.

And the next summer, I discovered that it couldn't actually do slideshow mode on Mac OS X, which kind of hosed plans to use it for my MacHack/ADHOC 2003 presentation.

But hey, it's free. So I went to the web page, set up an account, and loaded up the word processor. They have some very amusing loading screens that cycle through as the JARs are being downloaded for the first time. Here's a sample:

ThinkFree Office Online is now launching. The first time you run this application we need to store some stuff in your Java Virtual Machine (JVM). You only need to do this the first time, since the JVM stores the data. The next time you launch this application, it will launch just like any other desktop application.

Depending on your network, it may take the program a few seconds or several minutes to launch. But, like we said, those Sun programmers were really smart to develop the JVM so that we can cache the application.

The JVM allows us, and many other Java software developers, to write code that can be run in a web browser on many different platforms - Windows, Linux, and Macintosh. It also provides security for safe code execution.

Seriously, could Sun buy this kind of advertising if it tried?

And to appreciate what's being accomplished, the JAR download was far faster -- two minutes on my Dual 1.8 GHz G5, seven minutes on a 450 MHz G4 Cube -- than installing MS Office from a CD or downloading and installing OpenOffice. So think about that: Java is the fastest, least hassle option for installing an office suite.

I didn't have a lot of time to play, but I did notice that it got all of my local fonts and offered a WYSIWG font menu (nice!), and was amenable to my pasting in an image and then typing text in front of it, something that often tortures word processors that have to recompute wrapping and repaint constantly (read the description of Swing's GapContent to get an idea of how to deal with these challenges).

More importantly, since TFO and I haven't had a good history, I loaded in one of the conference presentations that I made with NeoOffice to see if TFO could handle it. Here's what it looks like on the Cube:


Surprises continue to abound: it didn't complain that I was running a browser other than IE or Firefox (namely Shiira), which is nicer treatment than I usually get from most JavaScript/AJAX sites out there. Perhaps more remarkably, this free version can read and write from your local drive, as well as storing online (good for travel?).

And the full-screen slideshow mode works. Running as an applet.

GJ guys and gals. Looks like ThinkFree has finally pulled it together.

Now let's see if anyone notices, or if people continue to try to rewrite Office as an AJAX app.

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Will a free office suite on the web revive applets?