Can slimmed-down ThinkFree woo netbook makers from

ThinkFree NetBook is a 70MB version of its desktop office suite

The people at ThinkFree Inc. well know that for a tech start-up timing is everything. Founded in 1999, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company was one of the first legitimate post-WordPerfect competitors to Microsoft Office. Not only was ThinkFree software fairly compatible with Office, it was far cheaper and came in two flavors: one for the desktop and, more radically at the time, one available via the Web.

Despite glowing reviews, demand lagged. And when interest in Web-based Office-like suites finally caught up to ThinkFree, other competitors such as Google Docs and Zoho Office seemed to jump ahead, promising more-powerful Web-based collaboration and a big brand name (in Google Inc.'s case) or a broader application suite (in Zoho's).

Quiet for the past year during a reorganization that saw founder and longtime CEO T.J. Kang depart, ThinkFree today announced a new product that it hopes will jump-start its flagging chances.

ThinkFree NetBook is a trimmed-down version of its desktop office suite for low-cost, ultraportable notebook computers, often called netbooks. It takes up just 70MB when installed, not including the 70MB Java 6 plug-in it depends on to run, Edward Coloma, ThinkFree's managing director, said in an interview last week. That allows it to run as fast as the larger version of ThinkFree for regular PCs, he said.

Microsoft Office 2007 takes up 1.5GB of disk space, though some of that can be freed up by deleting the original download package. Because of its size and licensing cost, few netbooks are running Microsoft Office, according to Brad Linder, who tracks the netbook market in his blog Liliputing.

Instead, Linder said, many netbooks are equipped with software. These include the market-leading Asus Eee, Acer Inc.'s Aspire One, Dell Inc.'s Inspiron Mini 9, Everex's CloudBook and others. requires 440MB of disk space on Windows and 400MB on Linux. That's less than one-third the size of Office 2007, but six to seven times larger than ThinkFree.

Though they lack detailed statistics, officials such as marketing lead John McCreesh confirm that netbooks have been "a huge help in gaining market share for us. As the PC market becomes increasingly price-sensitive, and margins decline generally, we believe it is inevitable that vendors will turn to," he wrote. "The small/simple computer market just happens to be the most price-sensitive place at the moment." Even so, there is no effort under way today to create a netbook-size version of software, said OpenOffice community steward Louis Saurez-Potts. "As with any open-source project, if there are people, and coordinated interest, we will build it," he said via e-mail.

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