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

Aug 31, 2000, 14:50 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Wolley)

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 desktop.

by John Wolley, Linux Today

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 model.

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 Model
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 automatically.

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 private.

ThinkFree Office -- "Fat-Free ASP" Architecture
ThinkFree Office first caught my attention after the February LinuxWorld in New York, when it received very favorable reviews in PC Magazine (02/00), InfoWorld (02/00), 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 around.

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 only
  • 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, 2000)
eWeek: Giving hosted apps the time of day [ASPs a bad idea?](Jul 22, 2000)
LinuxPlanet: Don't Get Bitten by an ASP; Nightmare on Broadband Street(Jul 20, 2000)
CRN: ASPs Turn To Linux, Even Without 99.99% Availability(Jul 03, 2000)
Open Source IT: ASP Market Takes Off, Taking Linux With It(Jun 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, 2000)
IT-Analysis: Oracle rounds out the ASP with storage(May 18, 2000)
TechWeb: Seagate Aims Linux Appliances At ASPs(Apr 06, 2000)
Security Portal: ASP - Application Service Provider or A Security Problem?(Mar 27, 2000)
Web 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)
LinuxPR: ThinkFree.com Welcomes 30 Inaugural Partners Into New ThinkFree Partner Program(Apr 10, 2000)
LinuxPlanet: ThinkFree Office: Will Operating Systems Become Irrelevant?(Mar 09, 2000)
InfoWorld: Java-based office suite maker ThinkFree is a company way ahead of its time(Feb 28, 2000)
PC Magazine: ThinkFree Office [Review](Feb 27, 2000)
BW: Thinkfree Office Creates 'Your Workplace in Cyberspace'(Feb 20, 2000)

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