Free Thinking on the Web

Steve Hamm

T.J. Kang, the CEO of ThinkFree Inc., is a never-say-die sort of guy. Ever since 1983 he has been building desktop productivity applications as an alternative to Microsoft's dominant Office franchise. He hasn't tasted much success, but still he keeps trying. His latest effort is an Office-compatible set of applications based on Web 2.0 technologies that's due out in April. "I truly believe there needs to be an alternative to Microsoft," says the 45-year-old Korean-Canadian entrepreneur. "If you think it's futile, you lose heart and run out of steam. But I haven't lost heart." There are now more than half a dozen Office-killer ;-) online services out there, and Google caused a ripple of excitement when it bought one of them, Writely, a week ago, so it seems like we're once again at a crossroads. Will these new alternatives to Office take off? Or will they, like others before them, limp off into technology oblivion? I'm not betting on ThinkFree to succeed, but I'm going to try it out on my home machine.

A bit of context. Kang is not only the CEO of ThinkFree; he's also vice-president for strategic alliances at Haansoft, the Korean software maker, which has about 70% of the Korean word-processor market. Korea is one of the few (only?) countries in the world where Office doesn't rule. Haansoft is a sworn Microsoft enemy. It is jointly developing the Asianux Linux operating system with Red Flag Software of China and Miracle Linux of Japan.

ThinkFree was an outgrowth of the dot-com boom. Kang started a company called J-Soft in Silicon Valley in 1998 and set about making an Office clone with Java--designed as an online service to be accessed via network computers. The network computer idea didn't get traction, so Kang refocused on PCs, changed the company's name to ThinkFree, and raised $24 million. That business plan didn't work either. Not enough consumers had broadband connections, and, on dial-up connections it took too long to create documents and spreadsheets on a Web site. In 2003, when ThinkFree was running out of money, Haansoft bought it. Last summer, Kang launched an online service and a stand-alone suite of word-processor, spreadsheet, and presentation creator running on Windows, Linux, and Mac. The traditional version costs $49.95. The online version is free, but, eventually, Kang wants to make money with a premium version, charges for extra storage space, and advertising.

Why does he think this latest effort will pay off? More than half of the homes in the United States have broadband connections now, making online applications more viable. Also, he expects people to consider shifting rather than paying to upgrade to Office 2007 when it comes out later this year. "I have a really good feeling this time. All the stars are aligned," says Kang.

He has been getting inquiries from large corporations who want to size up an alternative to Office. ThinkFree created a server version that companies can run on their own servers. Five of them are running pilots right now, including FN Manufacturing, a North Carolina-based gun maker. Here's a review by eWeek.

The newest online version, which is in beta now, makes up for a flaw in the earlier version. That one can't run on machines unless they have a Java runtime installed. The new version has an AJAX front end.

So far, only about 50,000 people are using the free online version of ThinkFree. Kang doesn't advertise. He's hoping word of mouth will gain him some traction. Already, about 1,300 bloggers have weighed in. Now it's 1301.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.