Two More Challenges To Microsoft Office: Glide And ThinkFree

October 31, 2007

By Ron Miller

When Microsoft completely redesigned Office 2007, rendering it completely unfamiliar to even the most experienced users, it opened a door for a number of alternatives — some of them online. And while Google and Zoho are the names that most people are familiar with when it comes to online office applications (check out ), there are other — perhaps better — services out there.

Two of these services are ThinkFree Online and Glide. Both offer basic office functionality, as well as automatic synching to allow for access to your content when you’re offline. Glide includes not only office productivity applications, but also links your mobile and desktop computing environments and provides document-level security and media file sharing.

Both programs can open Office legacy documents with basic formatting, but each had some trouble with more complex documents, especially with Word numbered lists (but then Word has had trouble with numbered lists for years, so it should come as no surprise that these programs have trouble translating it). Neither can deal with an Open Office formatted document. While you can create fully formatted documents, slide show and spreadsheets, neither product’s spreadsheet can deal with sophisticated options such as pivot tables (although Glide promises that its upcoming offline version of the spreadsheet will have pivot table and other advanced functionality).

So before you make the leap and fork over the big bucks for Microsoft Office 2007, take a look at these two very reasonable alternatives.

ThinkFree Online aims to be a pure Microsoft Office alternative, offering a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. The company actually offers several version: the free Online edition, the Desktop edition ($50). a Server edition )$30 per user per year), and a Premium version (currently in beta), which adds online/offline file synching.

ThinkFree is the only Office alternative I’ve seen that actually uses the same .DOC, .PPT, and .XLS extensions as Microsoft (spokesperson Jonathan Crow says that his company actually reverse engineered the Microsoft Office file formats beginning in 1997). That means you can simply open your native Office documents (Office 2003 or earlier; ThinkFree is working on Office 2007 DocX compatibility for a future release.) seamlessly, at least in theory. In reality, it really depends on how complex your formatting is and how many of Microsoft’s more advanced features you have used.

If you keep it fairly basic, the documents open and display as they would in Office, but ThinkFree can’t play sound or animations in imported Powerpoint documents, pivot tables in imported Excel files, or complex formatting from Word documents. That’s because the ThinkFree Office program equivalents tend to stick to simpler functionality than Microsoft. If you are looking for every bell and whistle, this is probably not for you.

ThinkFree Premium, which adds syncing to the product, uses the concept of a Webtop (like a desktop on the Web) where you store all of your personal documents. Once you move a document from the desktop to the Webtop, whenever you change the document, either online or offline, ThinkFree automatically syncs the two versions. When uploading, you are limited to a maximum 10MB file size per file, which could be problematic for users who have larger documents. When uploading, by default, you have to browse for each document one at a time, but hidden away (if you look closely) is a feature that enables you to drag and drop multiple files or folders from your computer onto the Webtop, which is a lot easier than uploading a file at a time when moving multiple files.

If you have been an Office user (at least, prior to Office 2007), you should know your way around the ThinkFree office applications. ThinkFree uses the tried and true menu bar/toolbar metaphor which we have all grown familiar with over 20 years of GUI use.

One departure from Office is the choice of two editing modes: Quick Edit and Power Edit. As the names suggest, you can use Quick Edit to make minor changes to your document, but if you are writing a document from scratch or need access to more advanced formatting and editing functions, you need to use Power Edit. ThinkFree designed the QuickEditor with AJAX to make it load faster and be used for smaller editing jobs, while the Power Editor is programmed in Java for more advanced functionality, but in testing I found it hard to discern between the two.

ThinkFree offers a nifty blog posting feature, which is designed to work with major blog platforms such as Typepad, WordPress, and Blogger. You simply enter your user name and password and select how you want to display your ThinkFree content — as embedded text or as an icon the user clicks to open. When I tested this feature with my Typepad blog, it worked without a hitch.

While ThinkFree needs to upgrade the size of documents you can upload, it provides a familiar environment and deals fairly well with legacy documents.

Glide gives you office applications in a comprehensive online operating environment that works seamlessly between your mobile and desktop versions.

Glide takes an entirely different approach from ThinkFree. Instead of aiming to be a one for one Microsoft Office alternative, you get an online operating environment where in addition to a word processor, presentation program, and spreadsheet (which is due to be released at the end of October). You also get e-mail, an online meeting tool, automatic file syncing, sophisticated file security, media file sharing, a blogging tool, and a simple Web site building tool. If you wish, you can also import your browser bookmarks and contact list.

What’s more, the mobile and the desktop versions synch automatically, so any changes you make — whether on your desktop or mobile device — update instantly on each platform. Glide is coming out with a business version at the end of October that will let you to work locally on your hard drive, as well. There are versions for Linux, Mac, and Windows. And while Glide is free with 2GB of storage, you can increase that to 10 GB ($4.75/month) or 12 GB ($49.95/year).

Glide’s home page offers you a selection of all the applications that it offers; tabs along the top give you access to your mailbox, address book, and other tools. Like Microsoft Office 2007, the Glide office applications have foregone the menu bar in favor a ribbon divided up by task; however, I found Glide’s design was cleaner and easier to use. In addition, to the ribbon with traditional Office functions, when you edit a document, three tabs along the left side of the window enable you to share your document, invite one or more people to a chat or e-mail the document. However, the overall screen design isn’t quite as crisp as it could be; Transmedia needs to find a smoother way to incorporate these tabs.

Glide clearly separates itself from both ThinkFree and Office 2007 with its security features, which far outdo just about any other tools on the market. With Glide you can not only make your document read-only, you can set it so the recipient can only read it one time (or however many times you decide). You can control if the user can download attachments or reply with attachments and so forth, giving you total control on a file by file basis and even on a recipient by recipient basis (in an e-mail with multiple recipients).

Business users will appreciate the seamless integration between the mobile and desktop versions. The mobile side has been designed to do tasks with finger taps, making it a great match for the iPhone, and any changes you make to your documents on the mobile side sync instantly with the desktop. You have to download a separate syncing tool to your desktop computer, which provides a way to move content such as documents or photos from your desktop into the Glide system and synch any changes you make to those items. You can set the sync tool to watch files or folders to update the corresponding online folders automatically.

It would be remiss to have a review of Glide without discussing how well it handles media files whether it’s video or audio, regardless of the format. You simply send a media file to a recipient and apply whatever rights you want (just as with a document); Glide ships the file with its own media player.

Glide needs to work on handling Office documents better, but overall it offers a great package with security that dwarfs offerings from Microsoft and other competitors. You are not only getting fairly sophisticated office applications, but also the ability to share files and interact with other users, regardless if they are part of the Glide system or not. Because you’re dealing with a Web interface, the capacity to move and share files between desktop and mobile environments is seamless — for example, if you make a change on a file using your desktop, it will be immediately reflected on your mobile device.

The interface could still use some tweaking, but overall, Transmedia has built a system that includes all of the tools you need to create and share documents and collaborate with your colleagues securely with access from wherever you are.

Source: Information Week