Recasting the Word Processor for a Connected World

The New York Times - February 11, 2007
Michael Fitzgerald

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TIMING is the bane of those who would be innovators. Get it right and you’ll be toasted. Get it wrong and you’re just plain toast. Nobody knows that better than T. J. Kang, a software entrepreneur who hopes that after one decade and two failures, he may be in line for a sip of Champagne.

Mr. Kang runs ThinkFree, which offers Web-based word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software that replicates much of what Microsoft’s comparable applications do, and can easily exchange files and other data with Microsoft applications.

ThinkFree keeps the applications, and any data entered into them, on its own servers, which means that you can gain access to your files from any computer with an Internet connection. The Web, in effect, will act as your computer. The tin-eared technology industry calls these kinds of Web applications software-as-a-service, and despite its terrible name the notion has caught on.

Web-based applications appear to represent a platform shift, which in computer industry jargon signals a change that knocks down existing stalwarts and opens room for new companies to grow. The idea of Web-based applications isn’t new, but the spread of broadband and the development of new software technologies makes them practical.

Indeed, Web applications, in theory, can match anything we see on desktop computers and then do them one better: putting applications like spreadsheets and word processors on the Web means that several people can swap or work on the same document or spreadsheet at the same time without having to e-mail it back and forth.

They also extend the drag-and-drop metaphor of the desktop computer to the Web, so one can pull a picture from a photo-sharing site like Flickr into a document. (This is called a mashup, after the music industry term for mixing song clips.) And, generally, the Web-based versions of these applications are free.

“Our vision has finally been realized,” Mr. Kang said. But it is also true that this is the third platform shift that he has experienced in the last 10 years, and that the first two wound up knocking down almost no one. He started the company that became ThinkFree in 1997, when he was inspired by the idea of a network computer, which held that people could create and store all their work on the Web.

The network computer concept fizzled, but in early 1999 he was able to snare some $24 million in venture capital and recreate his company as an “application service provider” that introduced its Web-based Office alternative in 2000. When that money ran out in 2003, Mr. Kang was rescued by Haansoft, an application maker in South Korea, and was able to keep going.

ThinkFree now has 240,000 users, some of whom pay for it; while the online version of the product is free, if you want to keep your files to yourself, ThinkFree markets a downloadable version of its tools for $49 each. That’s much less than the $400 that Microsoft charges most users for its Office 2007 suite of applications. (It must be noted that ThinkFree does not come with an e-mail product like Microsoft Outlook.)

Among the buyers is Ryder System Inc., the trucking company, which purchased ThinkFree for use across its 700 field offices. Henry Wengier, director of technical services at Ryder, said mechanics, reservation agents and other workers need word processors or spreadsheets only occasionally, and ThinkFree lets them have it all; otherwise it would make no economic sense for him to install Microsoft Office on all 2,000 PCs in those offices.

The deal clincher was the ability to download ThinkFree so that Ryder could run the product behind its computer network’s firewall.

Mr. Kang has plenty of company in the market, including the Web-based application suites Ajax13, gOffice, iNetOffice and ZoHo Virtual Office. There’s also the Writeboard word processor, the EditGrid and Num Sum spreadsheets, and WikiCalc, a new spreadsheet from Dan Bricklin, the software developer who, with Bob Frankston, created the very first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, back in 1979.

Meanwhile, the Web’s 800-pound gorilla, Google, has its own online spreadsheet, and it bought a Web word processor, Writely, in March 2006.

None of these offerings will likely make a dent in Microsoft’s 97 percent share of the $10 billion global market for office suites. Instead, analysts like Mark Levitt at the IDC research firm in Framingham, Mass., say that Web offerings will complement Office, appealing primarily to people who do not want to pay to put Office on their home computers. (The cheapest version of Office is a $150 student version.) Web traffic statistics from and suggest that these Web-based applications are still curiosities.

The big advantages of Web-based applications “are remarkably ordinary,” said Mitchell D. Kapor, who founded the Lotus Development Corporation and now runs the Open Source Application Foundation, which is developing personal information management software. He said those advantages boiled down to not having to install and maintain software on your system, and the ability to share information more easily. But ordinary can be good, he added, and in a well-established field like desktop applications, small steps are better than big ones.

“From a business perspective, actually, too much innovation is a liability,” Mr. Kapor said. If a product differs too much from previous technology, it can be an “enormous deterrent” to adoption, he said. “A lot of innovators have run afoul of that,” he added, “and been shipwrecked on the rocks of inertia.”

At the moment, Mr. Kapor is trying to avoid those shoals himself. His current project is an open source personal information manager called Chandler, which started as a complete rethinking of the way calendar and contact-management software works, and is about three years behind his original schedule. A version that people can use, he said, will arrive in April — and it will, by design, be a gentler break with the past than he intended at the start.

THESE early efforts will probably open the door for substantially different ways of working. A case in point comes from Virtual Ubiquity, a start-up in the Boston area that has rethought what a Web-based word processor should be.

While the word processor lacks a name and will not be publicly available until the late spring, it has been demonstrated at developer conferences, and the company’s founder and chief executive, Rick Treitman, showed it to me, complete with the requisite crash caused by freshly coded features.

Among these features are an elegant reworking of the menu bar, wonderfully easy ways to move and resize images on the page, and color-coded pop-up comment boxes that are a marked improvement over the “track changes” feature in today’s word processors.

Good software demonstrations do not necessarily translate to successful products, of course. But it is obvious that even the word processor, an advance on the ancient idea of the sheet of paper, still has plenty of room for innovation. A toast, then, to what will come next.