Online office apps get real: Google Docs vs. ThinkFree vs. Zoho

Web-based suites have become real challengers to desktop applications

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Google Docs

Google Inc.'s Google Docs sticks to the basics but does them elegantly. It offers just the classic three productivity applications: word processor, spreadsheet and presentation editor. But its user interface seems especially well thought-out.

Its file organizer is uncluttered but provides a very usable management console for uploading, downloading and creating new files in any of the suite's three applications. The Google Docs word processor and presentation apps present particularly clean user interfaces -- something they can get away with because they provide arguably the least functionality of the three suites.

Google, of course, offers a variety of Web-based apps, some of which can also be considered important parts of any productivity suite -- Gmail, for example, or Google Calendar. However, they are not really integrated with the other applications (except via a small set of links on the top left of each Google page).

Web office apps

Google Docs has made many small improvements in the last year, and one really big one -- Gears (until very recently called Google Gears), a software platform that works as a browser extension to let you take your documents offline, work with Web applications while you're disconnected, and then sync your changes automatically when you reconnect. Besides Google Docs, a handful of other Web apps (including rival Zoho) currently work with Gears, and more are expected.

ThinkFree Online

ThinkFree Corp.'s ThinkFree Online can be used independently, but users are heavily encouraged to use it as an adjunct to ThinkFree Office, the offline software version. For example, its sync tool, ThinkFree Manager, is available to all buyers of its desktop version of ThinkFree Office, so documents stored in a ThinkFree Web account can be worked on offline and automatically synced when you reconnect.

ThinkFree has also improved the integration of its apps with a file-management console called "My Office" that supports hierarchical folders, and tracks files you have published or shared with others.

Web office apps

ThinkFree has also added an offline capability for all users of its online apps by letting them download and install an ad-supported version of the ThinkFree Office desktop apps, and including ThinkFree Manager, an offline file manager that keeps track of local files. When a Web connection is available, you can log into ThinkFree Manager and run a sync process that synchronizes all the documents changed while you were offline with their online versions stored in your ThinkFree Web account. ThinkFree has also improved the integration of its online apps with a file-management console called "My Office" that supports hierarchical folders and tracks files you have published or shared with others.

ThinkFree Online offers the same three applications as Google Docs, plus a couple of extras that are more or less "coming attractions":

  • A Workspace application that doesn't do much yet but looks as if it is intended to be a collaboration space that would let a team share documents and create threaded discussions.
  • A billboard for a forthcoming Notes application that ThinkFree describes as a "Web Editor" that will handle formats such as .doc, .docx (the current Office standard) and PDF, and will offer WYSIWYG features not currently found in the current ThinkFree word processor.

ThinkFree's user interface ranks only slightly behind that of Google Docs: Visually, it feels slightly more cluttered, but its file organizer works well, and its applications perhaps come the closest of the three Web-based offerings to matching the functionality of Microsoft Office. ThinkFree makes a selling point of its close resemblance to Office, in fact: The applications look and work like the traditional Office 97/2003 apps (before Office 2007 and the Ribbon interface came along).


If there's a trophy for the company that takes Web-based apps the most seriously, Zoho may have already retired it. The company offers something like 20 products online, some free and some not, which range from basic productivity apps to customer relationship management systems and webconferencing tools.

Web office apps

The range of applications is large, but their integration as a suite is spotty. Once you log in, you can switch to other Zoho apps without having to log in again each time, but each application is a stand-alone. While Google Docs and ThinkFree offer file organizer views that let you organize your files into folders and see them all in one place, Zoho does not. Each application shows you just the files you have created in that app in a long list that you can sort, but not subdivide into folders.

Zoho has begun to build offline operation into its applications by making them compatible with Google's Gears. Currently Writer utilizes Gears, but other Zoho apps don't yet.

So which of these Web-based suites would be the best to use in place of Microsoft Office (or any other desktop suite)?

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