In Context: ThinkFree ASP Architecture to Open Desktops to Linux?

ThinkFree.com has an architecture for a “fat-free ASP” that goes
a long way toward making the ASP model work — and if it works, for
many that’s one less barrier to consideration of Linux on the

by John Wolley, Linux

Editor’s Note: We’re excited to be featuring John Wolley as
a regular columnist on LinuxToday. Many of you will recognize
John’s name as a longtime contributor to LinuxToday. His column,
“In Context,” will appear weekly and will go behind the scenes in
putting important events in the Linux world in context.

San Jose, California, August 25, 2000 – Most of the attention on
“desktop Linux” at LinuxWorld was directed toward the Gnome
Foundation announcement. The GNOME desktop, integrated with a
reworked StarOffice suite was widely viewed in the trade press as a
potential challenge to Microsoft’s lock on the corporate desktop.
But another market trend that may present an equally serious
challenge to MS on the desktop — the application service provider
model — is already much further along. And one company,
ThinkFree.com, is way ahead of the pack in implementing this

A lot of companies are laying substantial bets that the
application service provider (ASP) model, whereby a user’s
applications are maintained on a webserver, is the “next big thing”
in computing. Several articles have pointed out that the ASP model
has a number of “show-stopper” problems that have to be worked out,
and Linux Today reader talkbacks are leaning heavily towards the
opinion that the ASP model makes about as much sense as the
proverbial lead balloon.

But ThinkFree.com, the company that is perhaps farthest along in
implementing the ASP model for a desktop office suite, has an
architecture for a “fat-free ASP” that goes a long way toward
making the ASP model work. ThinkFree’s strategy gives us a preview
of the direction in which Sun’s StarPortal (for StarOffice),
VistaSource’s AnywareOffice (for ApplixWare), and Microsoft’s
Internet version of Office will need to go if they want their ASP
office suites to have any chance of gaining wide acceptance.

Why does any of this matter to Linux? If apps are delivered via
a browser, or Java applets, the underlying desktop OS ceases to
matter. And the ASPs, like the ISPs before them, are favoring Linux
on their servers.

The Appeal of, and Problems with, the ASP

The ASP model offers businesses the prospect of offloading to an
outside, web-based service a lot of the headaches (and costs) of
maintaining applications that their employees need — and
it offers potential savings from buying “thin clients” instead of
full PCs as workstations. To users it offers “pervasive computing”
— freedom to work anywhere, on any device that has an internet
connection, with all their applications and files available just
like back at the office, and with daily backup handled

The problems are obvious: performance, availability, and
security. If apps are not installed locally, it means that either
the app must go back to the server for every little operation, or a
huge (multi-megabyte) piece of code must be downloaded at the
beginning of each session. Then what do you do when the ‘net slows
to a crawl or the server goes down? And finally, there’s the
ever-present danger that the server where your work is stored gets
cracked and all your private business documents cease to be

ThinkFree Office — “Fat-Free ASP”

ThinkFree Office first caught my attention after the February
LinuxWorld in New York, when it received very favorable reviews in
Magazine (02/00)
, InfoWorld
, and
LinuxPlanet (03/00)
. At LinuxWorld in San Jose I had a chance
to talk with Ken Rhie, ThinkFree.com’s president, about the details
of the ThinkFree Office design and business plan.

A key requirement for ThinkFree Office was to clone much of the
functionality of the Microsoft Office suite into Java applets. The
plan is not to compete with MS Office for the office desktop, but
to allow people using MS Office at their primary workstation to use
ThinkFree Office to work on the same files — at home, on the road,
or wherever they need to, on whatever device they have available,
as long as it supports Java. There’s no reason that ThinkFree
Office can’t be used as a replacement for MS Office, but
that’s not the primary strategy.

Equally important to cloning MS Office functionality was
not cloning the “bloat.” So the Java applets only
encompass about 75% of the functionality of the corresponding MS
Office apps. But the ThinkFree Java applets average only 1.5 MB per
module (and that will drop to 1.0 MB per module when they migrate
to Java2 around the first of the year), a fraction of the size of
the MS Office apps. By the way, what happens to one of those MS
Office features that ThinkFree Office doesn’t support, when the
file is opened in ThinkFree Office, worked on, saved, and re-opened
in MS Office? The feature is preserved — any portion of
the MS Office file format that is not “understood” by ThinkFree
Office is simply preserved as is.

How does a user work with the applets? They are downloaded from
the server to the user’s machine where they run locally. If the
version of Java on the user’s machine is not current, it may have
to be updated. When I asked Rhie what difficulties they had
encountered in getting the Java applets to run on different
platforms, he said it turned out that the biggest headache was
not platform-specific differences in Java, but differences
between different versions of Java on the same platform.

How does the user sync up local files with the copies stored on
the server? The user can work on files directly on the server, or
on the PC’s hard drive. Right now that’s a manual procedure,
performed through an interface very similar to the Windows Explorer
file manager. Towards the end of this year ThinkFree will implement
an automatic sync-up process, similar to the way that the Palm
Pilot handles this.

Running the Java applets locally solves the performance and
availability “show-stoppers”: the applets are not slowed down by
being run from the server; the applets do not have to be downloaded
at the start of each session on the same machine; the performance
of an applet does not degrade if the server is overloaded; and the
user can continue working even if the server is down or if an
Internet connection is unavailable.

Rhie calls this a “fat-free ASP architecture” because it
eliminates the server overhead and software bloat that would be
there if you simply took MS Office and rewrote it in Java (or “C
sharp” or whatever) for web delivery. Isn’t Rhie afraid that Sun
and Microsoft will quickly figure out that this is the way to go
with web-based apps and catch up quickly? Yes and No — Yes,
they’ll figure this out quickly (probably already have); but No,
they will not catch up quickly.

TinkFree.com has been working on their Java applets for a full
three years. Rhie thinks it may take Microsoft and Sun at least a
year or two to re-architect the legacy code for their monolithic
apps and strip out the “bloat.” And ringing the bloat out
of the desktop code may be the biggest problem that Sun and
Microsoft engineers will face: while users might tolerate a
one-time (per machine) download of fairly large app modules, unless
the module size is reduced to something close to ThinkFree’s 1.5 MB
per, the modules simply won’t fit on sub-PC devices (handheld PDAs,
set-top boxes, internet appliances) — and that’s where everyone is
forecasting the greatest market growth in the next few years.

Security Concerns?
When I asked Rhie how ThinkFree addresses the security issues
presented by the ASP model, when user files are stored on a server,
his answer was that ThinkFree can be used in conjunction with any
security measures that the user wants to implement. The only
security that’s built in by default is the user ID and password
that’s required to log onto the ThinkFree “cyberdrive” where your
files are stored on the server.

Currently, any additional user-implemented security for server
files must be done manually by the user. For example, ThinkFree
apps cannot open or save encrypted files, but a user could store
sensitive files encrypted, then decrypt a file before working on
it, and re-encrypt it when done, before copying it back to the
server — the encryption/decryption would have to be done outside
the ThinkFree interface. A ThinkFree release planned for
mid-November will encrypt files during transmission to and from the
server, but the files will still be stored unencrypted. ThinkFree
engineers have been looking for ways to allow user files to be
stored encrypted, and opened/saved by ThinkFree apps without user
intervention; this is feasible to do as long as the user is working
from a single machine, but gets messy when the user will be moving

In a follow-up conversation, Rich Buchanan, ThinkFree’s
marketing VP, stressed that ThinkFree Office can be used without
ever storing any user files on a server — the user just
has to carry files on a diskette or Zip drive cartridge in order to
work on them at a different machine. The “cyberdrive” server
storage is provided as a user convenience, so that users
do not have to do this. Buchanan noted that ThinkFree is
negotiating with a number of businesses which want their employees
to use ThinkFree Office on all their work, including sensitive
documents. The solution there will be to set up the “cyberdrive”
server inside the company’s firewall.

ThinkFree’s Pricing is Also “Fat-Free”
It’s not yet clear exactly how Sun will end up pricing its
web-based StarPortal apps. Early indications are that they want to
keep the pricing as close to zero as possible, and the fact that
Sun does not have a current revenue stream from StarOffice that it
needs to protect makes this a realistic possibility.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is clearly seeking a “revenue
neutral” model: the MS goal is to make users of their web-based
apps pay, on average, the same amount in usage fees that they would
pay in traditional licensing fees if they were running the current
MS Office suite on a PC. Since Office accounts for approximately
40% of MS revenues, they’re obviously not eager to lowball the
pricing for a web-based version of Office.

ThinkFree.com’s pricing is a little bit tentative at this point
— Rhie fully expects that it will have to be refined as they get a
better read on the market. Basically, the idea is to have a
three-tier customer fee structure:

  • Free — no charge, but you have to put up with
    banner ads similar to those you see in online email services; you
    get unlimited use of all apps, up to 10MB or so of disk space for
    your files on the server, and daily backup of your server files,
    with the ability to restore from the previous day’s backup
  • Standard — $25 per year ($2/month), and they
    lose the banner ads and increase your server space allocation
  • Premium — $99 per year ($8.25/month), and you
    get “a lot more” disk space, plus the ability to restore files from
    backups up to 30 days old

It should be emphasized again that the above details are
tentative, and subject to change. What’s important is just the
ballpark figures that ThinkFree is shooting for: “free” will
probably cover the needs of most users; if you need more resources,
$2 per month is a fairly trivial amount to pay; if you need a whole
lot more resources, $8.25 could still seem pretty reasonable.

ThinkFree Platforms
What client platforms is ThinkFree Office available on? Well, as of
early August (LinuxWorld), none of the platforms is up to the 1.0
release level. The Windows version is furthest along, the Linux
version (being tested on Red Hat) is right behind that, and the Mac
version is not far behind the Linux version. Solaris and BeOS
versions are “in limbo.” According to Buchanan, a fair amount of
work has been done on these versions, but ThinkFree has not yet
committed to releasing and supporting them — the total number of
BeOS users is small, and Solaris users are expected to favor Sun’s
StarOffice offering.

Availability of ThinkFree Office on PDAs, set-top boxes, and
internet appliances will be dependent on agreements with specific
manufacturers — Rhie said to watch for some announcements in
September. Adapting ThinkFree apps to these devices requires some
minimal configuration changes from the standard PC version for the
same OS. Buchanan pointed out that any “device” like Compaq’s iPaq,
which has the full functionality of a standard PC, can use the
standard version of ThinkFree Office for the OS it is running.
Buchanan also stated that ThinkFree currently has no plans to
support additional OS’s, like Palm or Symbian.

ThinkFree has worked out a way to deliver office apps from an ASP
in a way that makes sense for anyone to whom the ASP model has some
appeal. That would be people who are using MS Office at work —
and those who could use ThinkFree Office at work — and
who often need to work on the same files, on another machine, at
another location.

If ThinkFree succeeds in getting MS Office users weaned away
from “the real thing,” even if it’s just for working on files when
they’re away from the office, that’s a big first step; it
opens the door for them to consider using something else
all the time. And if a cross-platform suite like ThinkFree
Office (or StarOffice) becomes an acceptable substitute for MS
Office in a particular business, that’s one less barrier to
consideration of Linux on that company’s desktops.

Related Stories — the ASP Model & Market:

InfoWorld: Compaq to spend $1 billion on ASPs
(Aug 24, 2000)

Smart Partner: $25B ASP Market By Year 2004 [Gartner]
(Aug 09,

eWeek: Giving hosted apps the time of day [ASPs a bad
(Jul 22, 2000)

LinuxPlanet: Don’t Get Bitten by an ASP; Nightmare on Broadband
(Jul 20, 2000)

CRN: ASPs Turn To Linux, Even Without 99.99% Availability
03, 2000)

Open Source IT: ASP Market Takes Off, Taking Linux With It
07, 2000)

New York Law Journal: ASPs: Proceed With Care
(May 30, 2000)

ZDNet: VA Linux Aims For More ISP, ASP Market Share
(May 18,

IT-Analysis: Oracle rounds out the ASP with storage
(May 18,
Seagate Aims Linux Appliances At ASPs
(Apr 06, 2000)
Portal: ASP – Application Service Provider or A Security
(Mar 27, 2000)
Developer News: Cobalt Adds ASP Solutions
(Mar 23, 2000)

Related Stories — ThinkFree.com Products & Plans:

GNULinux.com: Thinkfree Office Review
(Jul 24, 2000)

PC World: ThinkFree Upgrades Web-Based Apps
(Jun 20, 2000)
ThinkFree.com Welcomes 30 Inaugural Partners Into New ThinkFree
Partner Program
(Apr 10, 2000)

LinuxPlanet: ThinkFree Office: Will Operating Systems Become
(Mar 09, 2000)
Java-based office suite maker ThinkFree is a company way ahead of
its time
(Feb 28, 2000)
Magazine: ThinkFree Office [Review]
(Feb 27, 2000)
Thinkfree Office Creates ‘Your Workplace in Cyberspace’
(Feb 20,

Related Stories — Other Office Suites & Apps Gearing Up for
ASP Delivery:

LinuxPR: VistaSource Announces New AnywareOffice Beta Program for
Server-Centric Computing
(Aug 15, 2000)

LinuxPR: Mission Critical Linux To Offer SST Remote Management
Solution On ASP Subscription Basis
(Aug 15, 2000)

LinuxPR: FreeDesk.com and VistaSource, Inc. to Provide Free Office
(May 15, 2000)
Applix Spin-off Preps Linux Suite For ASPs
(Apr 25, 2000)
ASP opens ‘world’s largest’ Oracle database deployed on Linux;
NetLedger Offers Accounting Apps
(Apr 19, 2000)
Coming Soon: DB2 For ASPs
(Apr 13, 2000)
News.com: Microsoft details Office rental plans
(Nov 12,
Sun’s StarPortal Still On Track
(Nov 12, 1999)
Sun Commits To Star Desktop, Preps Portal
(Oct 14, 1999)
Times: Microsoft Working On Internet Version of Office
(Oct 02,
Microsoft Office To Be Hosted By Verio Over Internet
(Sep 30,
News.com: Microsoft hatching online plans for Office
(Sep 21,
StarPortal will let users beam up office apps on a cell phone-Sun’s
network-services model
(Sep 06, 1999)

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