Does the OpenDocument religion make sense?

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?
Written by George Ou, Contributor

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, OpenOffice.org and StarOffice performance (or lack thereof).  Last year when I wrote a series of blogs comparing the performance of OpenOffice.org 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 OpenOffice.org.  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 OpenOffice.org and StarOffice in comparison to Microsoft Office and they explained that Microsoft took advantage of functionality in the Operating System while OpenOffice.org 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 OpenOffice.org 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.  OpenOffice.org 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.

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