In defense of

In defense of

Summary: In last week's shootout, where I matched Microsoft Excel against Calc, OpenOffice.

TOPICS: Tech Industry

In last week's shootout, where I matched Microsoft Excel against Calc, came out on the short end of the stick in my benchmark tests.  The tests not only showed Excel to have superior memory-handling efficiency, but superior file creation and load speeds in both the XML and XLS binary format.  Beyond my expectations, the blog was flooded with comments and went almost as high as 400 responses.  Some readers flamed me for screwing up the test even though they didn't read the test method and didn't even try to repeat the test themselves.  Other readers begrudgingly confirmed my results that was indeed slow but defended as a free and open standard alternative to Microsoft.  One such reader is Frenchman Frédéric Jean, who wrote this thoughtful letter to me:

Hi,  My mother tongue is French, so please excuse my spelling and grammar.

You seem to be on a crusade recently to demonstrate how XML is bloated and how OOo is slow to open/close files. You have published benchmark figures based on a test file. I don't dispute your data or your conclusions.

I am a daily user of OpenOffice, and also a long-time daily user of MS Office user. I have extensively used VBA on numerous occasions. I am both an "Office power-user" and a software developer. I am talking from experience here.

In my experience, MS Office starts quicker and loads files quicker. As for saves, the difference is not as noticeable (or I didn't notice it) but I assume it is quicker too. Great isn't it? Well, guess what, it does not matter in most cases.

Sure, you may find scenarios in which MSO is 10e32 times faster at doing X, but if X is a scenario only a tiny minority of users will ever encounter, it is a pointless exercise.  If "much slower" is still quick enough in user time, it is also pointless.  Frankly, you look like a mainframe guy saying mainframes are really fast at Word processing, that they can load and save documents much quicker than a PC (let us ignore the fact that mainstream word processing software may not exist on mainframes). The claim is true, but pointless. Mainframe makers still make truckloads of money selling their hardware to people with a real need for it, but they are the first to realize that the value they bring to the table can only be appreciated by niche (in numbers, but not in dollars) customers.

The world is full of examples like that : a (comparatively) expensive product is better at some specific task than another, cheaper one. Yet, the cheaper one is used by more people because it is OK for the average case and, well, it's cheaper, which is a real long-term advantage no matter how you slice it. I bet IBM used the TCO argument with their clients 15 years ago to counter the Windows momentum. On a 20-year horizon, Office becoming that kind of a product is a real possibility.

Not a certainty, but a possibility. Market leaders, when they are toppled, always fall prey to products once seen as poor replacements.

Now, for the meaty part. I have developed an elaborate OOo spreadsheet for the small company where I work. It is used for quoting the manufacturing of complex products with many, many production steps. It is not a full-blown "application", everything is done through formulas. There just are a lot of them, with lots of searches through tables. It takes a while to save and load (counted in seconds, not minutes).  Granted, it would be nice if it saved and loaded quicker. The file is just about 55kb, which is nice since there will be thousands of these files in a few years. A database-based solution would be better (from a computer science perspective), but for this small company the investment does not make sense and they need my time for other, equally important things.

I wanted to demo the system to a Microsoft Office user. I saved it to XLS format. 4500kb. 4.5Mb. That is 82 times bigger. I thought to. myself : "No way! OOo must be doing something stupid here". So I opened the file in Excel, stripped all the formatting, and got down to about 3Mb (as saved by Excel). I then wrote a VBA routine that "rebuilds" a workbook by copying all the sheets, re-creating all the formulas (as if they were re-typed by hand) and patching the named ranges to correct the 32000 rows limitation in OOo. With formatting preserved, it did not go far below 4Mb.

Sure, the Excel version loads faster. About 5-10 times faster (I did not measure it). But the difference in file size is the deciding factor here. You certainly know about the space-time compromise. Two orders of magnitude faster, two orders of magnitude bigger. Wow, how unexpected.  Excel files are usually bigger than OOo's, but not 98 times bigger. I also guess that OOo loads are usually slower than Excel's but not 98 times slower. One order of magnitude for both speed and size is closer to my experience.

Choosing extreme examples is only good at creating controversy. I guess the "creating heat" part of your mission as a journalist is as least as important as the "emitting light" part...

My personal example is not better than yours. It just shows that the criteria used to decide what software system is the best in a given case are not limited to start times, load times and save times. So while I agree with your conclusions about speed for these specific operations, I would and do touch OOo with poles much shorter than 10 ft. All of our internal documents are OOo-based, and it all works very well. I am a primary user of these documents, so I eat my own dog food. For the sake of the company, I don't care if development on OOo stops tomorrow.  The current version fits our bill. Good enough mixed with free is a proposal hard to refuse. The rest is all bonus to us. I have several managers, all Excel die-hards, listening to me with an open ear. Once you remove "getting MSO for free" from their equation, Microsoft's software begins to look much less interesting.  "Lock-in" is a concept they react to. OOo for internal documents, PDF export to send files outside, and a few copies of MSO is a compromise they are prepared to live with.


I want to thank Frédéric for his thoughtful letter, so I will say this in response:  You are pretty much admitting that is significantly slower than Microsoft Office but you argue that it's "good enough."  While I agree with you partially on that point, business users typically want the best and they don't mind paying for it.  It's kind of like saying a motel can save you money, but I prefer staying in a nice business class hotel.  Retraining office staff on a slower and less capable Office suite may not be worth the time and trouble.  I do respect your opinion and does offer a nice free alternative.  Ultimately it's up to the end user and business to determine if Microsoft Office has enough ROI to justify its price tag.

Topic: Tech Industry

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  • Good letter, Frederic!

    Patrick Jones
    • I'm in agreement...

      Space vs Speed is what it comes down to.

      Again like I had mentioned before and wish the replier would of said..

      Compare PDF to Excel or Word or OO..

      PDF is like 28937203 times slower to load and yet an adopted world wide standard.
      • The world suffered when PDF was invented

        We should all be in agreement there. Flashpaper would be such a better standard but it's harder to make secure. Then again, any ghostwriter can crack a PDF.
        • The world suffered when Flashpaper was killed off

          Too bad Adobe can't see the light.
          • Never heard of it.. That's probably why.. (NT)

        • Right point is...

          The point is.. Most people care for features over "load time" although speed is always nice.

          Heck look at the load time of AutoCAD without a drawing, now add a drawing to the mix. :)

          Lots of other programs out there that are cheaper, and free.. but don't have the functionality that AutoCAD does..

          I think the same goes with Office at this point.. Feature enriched vs OO.. Until OO compares to Office..

          Same goes with Windows vs. Linux.

          Stability and Security is there for linux, but Windows has the functionality that linux doesn't have.

          Just my own comments really.. but point is.. features is what counts. Not load speed as much as the person writing the article talks about.

          Heck if speed was an issue.. People wouldn't be using XML at all.. and sticking with Binary.
  • You should stick with your main arguement

    that XML is too big and too slow - on BOTH Excel and OO Calc. Fueling the zealotry between ABMers and M$hills leaves your main contention lost and forgotten. I suppose you made a few bucks by posting the article - but did you get your point across?

    You do suffer from the "be reasonable, do it MY way" syndrome. I would tend to agree that XML (and text in general) is not very space efficient. Your assertion to use XLS format because its "better" ignores a bigger issue. If XML is not good enough than we need a format that is OPEN and binary. It makes sense to me that we need both an OPEN text and OPEN binary format to save documents in - but saying that a proprietary format should be used in all cases reeks of shill.
    Roger Ramjet
    • The question is

      whether XLS is faster because it's binary or because it's proprietary or both. If what many are posting about XLS is true, that it's just a memory dump, then I would argue that its speed is due to that. In which case I'd have to argue that the speed of it is equally due to being both binary and proprietary, because a memory dump would have attributes specific to the executable.

      Now that doesn't mean another proprietary program can't have it's own binary that's faster than XLS, but it would still probably have to be another proprietary format. Or maybe "program specific" is a better term, because it COULD be a F/OSS program making that binary. But only that particular F/OSS program would be able to read/save quickly to its own binary format, others would be slower.
      Michael Kelly
    • In fairness to George

      "Fueling the zealotry between ABMers and M$hills leaves your main contention lost and forgotten."

      In this particular case, George wasn't trying to fuel such a debate; if I remember correctly, in his original blog George called MS to task for even considering XML. It was the knee-jerk responders that turned it into a "pro-" vs. "anti-" MS squabble. That unfortunately seems to happen in nearly every article and blog on ZDNet, regardless of topic.

      Carl Rapson
      • One point in fairness....

        Where the products do actually differ (and where zealots of either side will look ignorant in my books) is that.. Here OO has files so much smaller in size, vs office large size files..

        But... It shows that MS loads faster, hence it's mechanism for loading files is obviously superior.

        Now as a programmer.. What doesn't make sense is.. How come something smaller loads slower?
      • I don't think that is completely true

        To be honest, I think George turned it into a pro-MS stance in his original post when he said that MA should just stick with Microsoft Office and they were doing their taxpayers a disservice by switching to another format. At least that is how I interpreted it.
        Patrick Jones
        • That's the main problem...

          Although he seems to use other software, atleast temporarily..

          I do believe his approach is more aligned with MS backing then an actual unbiased approach. Usually people in either came are too busy defending their own "software company" they completely bypass the truely innovative and top notch programs/applications.

          One thing I've noticed is that these type of people suffer from software tunnel vision.
          • Forgot to add...

            When their busy defending their products and explaining them to their "customers"... I'm busy showing them new innovative products they seem to switch over too.

            I remember the days of PC Anywhere, everyone stood by it etc etc..

            Heck I still see people standing by it etc.. when A) Windows XP comes with it to some degree.
            B) Windows Clients can RDP into Windows XP, Server etc boxes.

            C) get an FTP program if the only advantage you think to PC Anywhere is that it has FTP capabilities. :P
        • No, not what I said

          I said we should stick with Microsoft binary formats for their efficiency and because everyone is already using it. I also said Microsoft should just make the binary formats open since they pretty much already are.
          • Stick with what is around...

            "I said we should stick with Microsoft binary formats for their efficiency and because everyone is already using it."

            That's the problem and what stops innovation.. If we did stick with an original format that worked we would still be on oldschool wordperfect 3.
          • Binary files can't be improved?

            What makes you think Binary files can't be improved or optimized? XML is a throw back.
          • They have to follow a hierarchy...


            "The advantages of a compact representation are:

            1. Storage: Large XML documents can be stored in the compact format, thus saving space.
            2. Transmission: Large XML documents can be transmitted more efficiently when represented in a more compact form, thus saving time. This is especially important when sending XML over low-bandwidth connections.

            A disadvantage of any compact encoding might be the additional time and CPU required to generate the encoding."

            Lots more of PRO's but lots of CON's like I've been saying. :P

            But I've also been saying, taht when it comes to speed no one cares in the end. :P

            Also just a forethought of why I'm more adamant about XML. It's not the user aspect... It's the B2B aspect where I am completely against XML as a standard and as a transfering/importing/exporting mechanism of data. It's slow in comparison to it's counterpart (EDI). This is where my biased probably comes into play.
          • Ok, my bad...

            Patrick Jones
          • Two things

            [I said we should stick with Microsoft binary formats for their efficiency and because everyone is already using it.]

            As my mother used to say "If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do what everyone else does?". Just use M$ format smacks of vendor lock-in! If M$ donated the patents for XLS into the public domain - THEN it might make sense to use it as a standard.

            [I also said Microsoft should just make the binary formats open since they pretty much already are.]

            This would be useless! As someone else pointed out, the binary format for XLS is basically a memory dump. This format would NOT WORK on ANYTHING ELSE except M$ Windoze.
            Roger Ramjet
  • I forgot to ask...

    Did you get permission from Microsoft for publishing a benchmark test for one of its products? Isn't that banned by the EULA?

    none none