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What's stopping ThinkFree from liberating businesses from Microsoft Office?

Surprise: Taking on a giant isn't easy

By Eric Lai
June 15, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Trucking firm Ryder System Inc. is one of ThinkFree Inc.'s best customers. It is also a maddening example of the obstacles that ThinkFree and its pioneering founder and CEO, T.J. Kang, face trying to convince CIOs that its online office software is ready for big business.

When Miami-based Ryder -- which had $6.3 billion in revenue in 2006 -- decided two years ago to finally convert hundreds of green-screen terminals at its truck leasing depots over to full, Web-enabled PCs, the company was naturally loath to splash out $300 each for what would likely be lightly used copies of Microsoft Office.

"These are repair technicians and shop managers and rental clerks," said Ryder's director of technical services, Henry Wengier. "Usage of Office is not high with them."

At the same time, Wengier was getting enough requests from employees needing to create an occasional memo or spreadsheet that he knew a solution was needed.

Wengier found it in ThinkFree. For just $6,000 a year (200 concurrent user licenses of ThinkFree's server edition at $30 each per year), Ryder is able to provide access to productivity software to 7,000 workers in 700 U.S. locations.

Because employees were already familiar with using network-based applications, no extra training for ThinkFree was needed.

"We just sent out a notice, 'Here is software that looks and acts like Microsoft Office; here's how and what you do,'" Wengier said.

Wengier loves ThinkFree so much that he even uses it on his home computer. At the same time, he has no plans to extend ThinkFree to any of Ryder's 10,000 white-collar office workers.

Although Wengier estimates that 90% of the office workers "could get by using ThinkFree, because there is so much functionality that people are not utilizing," identifying exactly who those workers are wouldn't be easy.

"There's a certain group of people ThinkFree is great for," he said. But "some people in accounting live in Excel. If we tried to give them ThinkFree, it would be a major problem."

Early to the collaborative-docs party

When Kang first began developing ThinkFree almost a decade ago as an application for the long-gone company Network Computer, ThinkFree was "the lone voice in the wilderness."

"Now, we don't have to convince people that this is the wave of the future," said the Korean-born, Canadian-educated entrepreneur in an interview in San Diego earlier this spring.

ThinkFree, which offers an online word processor, spreadsheet and presentation creator, is now just one of many vendors in the Office 2.0 space. It does remain one of the more highly touted ones, among companies in an elite group that includes Google Docs, Zoho Office and a few others.

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