Does the OpenDocument religion make sense?

Does the OpenDocument religion make sense?

Summary: Now that Sun's Engineers have admitted that the OpenDocument format is much slower than Microsoft's format and that Microsoft's document format is open, what is the point in converting to the OpenDocument format? The only complaint about Microsoft's Open XML format from the OpenDocument crowd is that they don't get a say in the design of Microsoft's format. But given OASIS’ bloated track record with their own open document format, do we really want them to?

TOPICS: Tech Industry

With news that the OASIS ODF (Open Document Format) is picking up steam, I had an opportunity to chat with Sun Microsystems and their StarOffice engineers in Germany this morning.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss ODF, and StarOffice performance (or lack thereof).  Last year when I wrote a series of blogs comparing the performance of to Microsoft Office, it got an exceptional amount of attention and thousands of comments across the Internet and in our own talkback forums.  Why even mess with OpenDocument when it's such a huge liability in performance and offers no advantage in competing with Microsoft? The controversy even made it to FOXNews when James Prendergast suggested that Massachusetts should forget about the ODF and quoted me saying that it was 100 times slower than Microsoft's Office format.

Much of the feedback on Slashdot and my talkback were negative and it either accused me of botching the tests or that the numbers were insignificant.  On the other hand, I also had many people email me that the results were consistent with their own experience.  But when I asked Sun's engineers point blank if they had verified my numbers, they stated that they do not dispute the numbers and immediately proceeded to explain why it was slower than Microsoft's format.  The reason Sun explained was that Sun has to use the open standards OASIS compressed XML format while Microsoft used its own proprietary binary file format which was essentially a very efficient memory dump that didn't require a lot of CPU cycles to process (approximately 95 times more cycles based on my tests).  But then I pointed out that even when I tested Microsoft Office with its own 2003 XML format plus the time it took to compress the data, it was still approximately 5 times faster than  Sun's engineers explained that this was due to the fact that ODF took longer to process than Microsoft's XML format.  At this point in the conversation, they've managed to convince me that the OpenDocument format was 5 to 100 times less efficient.

I then asked why it took so much more memory to load and StarOffice in comparison to Microsoft Office and they explained that Microsoft took advantage of functionality in the Operating System while and StarOffice had to load additional cross-platform libraries.  Aside from the fact that the 90% of computer users in the world who use Windows don't care about why something is a memory hog but only that it is, this still didn't explain why memory consumption went through the roof (230 for Calc 2.0 and 90 MB for Excel 2003) when the exact same 16-sheet spreadsheet was loaded.  Memory allocation for a loaded data file shouldn't have anything to do with the additional cross-platform libraries but Sun couldn't give me an immediate answer so they've promised to email me a response on this particular issue.

In my opinion, the whole file format controversy is an artificial one and it's a non-issue.  The main argument for an OpenDocument format is based on the premise that Microsoft somehow leverages their proprietary Office file format to bully the competition by denying them fair access to the file format to maintain their dominance in Office suites.  But this is argument is fundamentally flawed because the existing Microsoft Office binary formats are effectively the de facto standard and are effectively open to anyone.  The Microsoft Office formats are open in the sense that every Microsoft Office competitor from StarOffice to to Word Perfect to ThinkFree Office has reverse engineered the Microsoft Office format and uses it freely yet they've never been sued by Microsoft for doing so. Calc is already substantially faster with Microsoft's binary format than its own native ODF format and it leads one to wonder why anyone would want to use something that's less efficient when something better already exists.

Some would argue that there is a need to go to an XML format is better for long term archival because Microsoft's format may not be readable 10 years from now, but I'm able to open up obscure document formats from more than 10 years ago using readily available file converters and I really doubt that Microsoft Office will go away in 10 years.  Others would argue that the file format specifications must be officially open but that's exactly what Microsoft has done with their new XML format for Office 12.  Not only is the new Microsoft XML format open, but they've given assurances that they would not sue over it but the OpenDocument crowd still isn't satisfied because they want a say in how Microsoft's XML specification is designed.  But given how bloated and inefficient the OASIS OpenDocument format is, do you really want the same committee that created ODF to have a say in Microsoft's format?  If Sun or any other company is serious about creating a Microsoft Office competitor, they should spend less time debating this OpenDocument nonsense and compete on merit by improving CPU and memory handling among other things.  Why even mess with OpenDocument when it's such a huge liability in performance and offers no advantage in competing with Microsoft?  Stick with Microsoft's lean binary format but if you must have XML, use Microsoft's open XML format since it's still much faster than ODF.

Topic: Tech Industry

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  • Well said, except...

    ... that I still expect that Microsoft will be taking advantage of the company's own XML format to make Office work better.

    ODF is a ploy to prevent people from using Office's improved functionality; without Microsoft's formats the improvements would be inaccessible.

    Why go to that trouble?

    If Office works better than the competition because of the functions it provides, people can't be told Don't buy it, it's better than anything else.

    Instead, the campaign must be to prevent people from using the additional functionality.

    Criticizing the fact that only one company controls a format is more likely to be effective than arguing that Because only one company provides the best Office software, it should be avoided.

    And why should the best software be avoided?

    Perhaps because using the best software makes it more difficult to change to a lesser competitor.

    Or maybe just because it's proprietary and intended to make a profit.

    Or maybe because it comes from Microsoft specifically.

    The reason some people advocate ODF has nothing to do with the format's superiority, of course. It's all about advocating a view of the world.
    Anton Philidor
    • Except what?

      "... that I still expect that Microsoft will be taking advantage of the company's own XML format to make Office work better."

      I don't doubt that Microsoft will streamline Office 12, but what's wrong with that? The format is now officially open to all and everyone else can compete on the same level. If they can't compete, it's their own fault.

      "The reason some people advocate ODF has nothing to do with the format's superiority, of course. It's all about advocating a view of the world."

      Hence the title of my blog.
      • yawn

        "The reason some people advocate ODF has nothing to do with the format's superiority, of course. It's all about advocating a view of the world."

        well, its good to see you still peddling the idea that if its a MS standard its good an dif its not then its bad. Closed minds love closed source and closed standards.
      • Not a disagreement...

        ... but an emendation that gives another reason Microsoft's formats are opposed.

        You asked:
        Why even mess with OpenDocument when it's such a huge liability in performance and offers no advantage in competing with Microsoft?

        I suggested an answer.
        Anton Philidor
        • And that would be a rhetorical question :)

          Because obviously there isn't a good reason other than to spite Microsoft. The problem is that they're biting their own tongues to spite Microsoft and Microsoft is probably laughing their faces off. I mean it?s gotten to the point that if Microsoft didn?t want the OSS movement to do something, they would just use reverse psychology and suggest that they do it.
          • I don't think Microsoft is laughing...

            ... because sometimes the believers get authority as in MA and give righteous but actually trivial reasons for using that authority to cripple Microsoft software or deny it to users.

            Remember Mr. Quinn?

            He and a few others ruled that pdf is acceptable but Microsoft' formats are not because anyone can modify pdf to the point that most software can't use it so long as he doesn't call the result pdf, while Microsoft does not allow such misuse.


            ODF is necessary to preserve documents, said Mr. Quinn. When the person in charge of maintaining records for MA said he already had a plan to store the documents and it did not involve ODF, Mr. Quinn called him a joke. In print.


            It would be possible for MA state employees to use Office, but only so long as Saves are in a format certain to deny any advantage unique to Office.

            Mr. Quinn is not the only petty dictator blinded by ideology that Microsoft has to be concerned about.
            Anton Philidor
          • Nah, wouldn't have changed anything

            If that had gone through, it would have forced Microsoft to supply an ODF converter. That wouldn't mean anything because no one with any sense would use ODF with it's so horribly slow and since Microsoft formats are the most common. The ODF conversion would have just been a big stupid fiasco.
          • File Formats Vs. Applications

            ODF is a file format. StarOffice, KOffice, are
            applications which read and write ODF today. I'll concede that
            the applications which have added ODF to their supported file
            formats are poorer performers than Word. (On my Mac, I
            absolutely agree with the point -- on the Linux machines at
            work, Word isn't really that snappy.) But it is not the file format
            which makes it slower -- I would expect that Word on Windows
            doing plain text would be faster than OOo on Windows doing
            plain text.

            Back to the file format issue, the essence of ODF, data and
            presentation separation implemented via standard xml schemas
            and zipped resources, is also the essence of the Office 12
            MSXML format, so there must be some soundness to the idea.

            So, why do I cheer on the ODF implementors? Let's be honest,
            despite the best efforts of the people who make ThinkOffice,
            OOo, etc., the only way to get a guaranteed MS Office experience
            from an Office file is with MS Office and that means on a
            Windows machine. And there's the rub, no? So for those of us
            left forlorn because Microsoft won't sell an application for our
            platorms of choice, what to do? Go to Plan B which is
            functionally cross-platform at the expense of efficiency? Well,
            yeah. Fortunately, a fully published open standard which may be
            freely implemented by any vendor without licensing restrictions
            means that customers can choose the best peforming software
            today and switch to better software from more competitors
            tomorrow. As for today's slow applications -- I notice that the
            ODF format is not yet a year old. And doesn't the wise man
            implement first and optimize after?
          • Good reasons abound

            Running on an essentially virus-free platform is one (Macro Viruses also).

            Avoiding horriffic licence fees is another.

            Wide portability is another.

            Being able to literally hand a recipient a copy of all wanted software is another.

            Australia's debt is another.

            Not turning up every month or few to fix the same ####ing thing over and over again is another.

            Useful package management is another.

            Not being fined is another (an alternative to shelling out permanent employment for hundreds of people just to avoid the fines).

            Not "giving actual ownership of your documents to a provider" is waving a hand, wants to be counted.

            There are MANY more good reasons in the list.
    • Please explain

      [i]ODF is a ploy to prevent people from using Office's improved functionality; without Microsoft's formats the improvements would be inaccessible.[/i]

      Which would those be?
      Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Dang it George...

    I can't find anything in your post to argue...
    • Wow

      No Ax speechless on something.
    • Shills think alike!

      Thanks for proving it No_Ax!
      Roger Ramjet
  • By all means, George

    As long as you're only using a single application to access your data, use the native format for that application. (Although quite a few others have documented the fact that porting MSOffice data to later versions can be seriously problematic.)

    On the other hand, if you're putting together an enterprise environment that can't be confined to a single platform, much less a single application, it makes sense to use a format that was designed with broader objectives than to be an "efficient memory dump [1]" for a single application.

    That's where the issue (see recent interview) of Massachusetts' Enterprise Technical Reference Manual came in: they were putting together a complete architecture spanning everything from tax records to birth and death statistics to motor vehicle registrations. Not exactly something to do all in Excel.

    [1] Those who have studied both the MS binary and MS XML formats say that the latter is basically an XML tokenization of the former.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • That's false though

      "Although quite a few others have documented the fact that porting MSOffice data to later versions can be seriously problematic"

      You can download a converter from Microsoft that pretty much opens anything. This notion in intra-version incompatibility that you're peddling is false.
      • Sure George

        We are all imagining the formating errors that happen and files that refuse to open when we open our old files.
        Edward Meyers
        • Give me an example

          Send me a sample file. I'll try it with the Microsoft converter tool.
          • Let me check with my boss

            But I doubt my boss will grant me hours needed to do the following: get the legal staff to approve sending internal documents and Outlook email profiles to a ZDNet blogger for testing; convince the users involved to allow their documents and email to be sent to a ZDNet blogger for testing; travel throughout the organization and pick up any/all of the following problems I've run into:

            1. Office 98 documents that convert properly to Office X but not to Office 2004.

            2. And those same Office 98 documents that once sent via email won't convert to Office X but will convert to Office 2004.

            3. Office 97 documents that lose their formatting when converting to Office 2000 but don't lose it when converting to Office XP but do lose it when converting to Office 2003.

            4. Outlook 2000 profiles that get corrupt when converting to Outlook XP or Outlook 2003. (BTW, Microsoft's suggested fix is to back up the user's files and blow away the Windows XP user profile. Nothing like killing a gnat with an Atomic Bomb.)

            Maybe my boss will see how ultra-imporant it is to provide ZDNet with the tools needed to do their own job. But I doubt it.

            - Scott

            PS. George, I think it's likely that you've run into an Office conversion problem at some point. You probably just blocked out the memory once you solved the problem :P
          • Backwards complexibility

            Inside the windows world I regurlary come across older powerpints that won't open in newer office versions. They won't even import - "not a powerpoint" it says. Then you start StarOffice which readily opens it with NO format errors, and from there you save it in the MS version you choose. Now you can open your powerpoint presentation in Microsoft Office. Just to be fair spreadsheets made in Lotus Symphony aren't much better.

            This MS conversion tool will it run in Linux or Mac ??

            I'd say give the MS fileformats to the UN. They work real slow, so maybe we can assure long-term readability of official documents that way. When documents only 10 years old cause problems, what will happen in a hundred years - or more ??

            Maybe you americans don't think that far as you oldes records are just over 200 years, but overhere in Europe we have records dating 900 to 1000 years back. Our church ledgers are kept and available 500 years back. Can we read those made in access or whatever in April 2506 ?
        • Show me one!

          And I'll teach you how to do it PROPERLY.