The Rorschach of OO.o Analysis

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One of the fascinating aspects of the technology business, to me, is the degree to which – for better or worse – it represents a microcosm of the larger non-technology world. From politics to religion, it’s all here. If you’re looking for proof, I’d look no further than the current scuffle around the Open Document Format and OpenOffice.org which is as much about such abstract concepts as control and sovereignty as it is about technology.

The latest example of this is a piece from ZDNet’s George Ou entitled “OpenOffice.org 2.0 is here, but is it a pig?” IMO, this entry demonstrates amply the natural human tendency to believe what we want to believe, and select our evidence accordingly.

It’s not that I fully disagree with Ou; I actually semi-defended his test results in an earlier entry here, and I will readily concede that Microsoft Office is a better performing piece of software than its open source counterpart, OpenOffice.org (OO.o). I use OO.o every day, and Microsoft Office perhaps a few times a week, and even on older hardware Microsoft’s package is snappier. But the question is: how much?

Apparently not content with the widely accepted conclusion that Microsoft Office is faster than OO.o, Ou seems fixated on proving that OO.o is in fact so slow as to be not usable. What gets lost in his analysis however are simple questions such as: usable for whom? and for which documents?

To ‘prove’ that OO.o is a pig, Ou offers up a sample file here for users to perform their own tests. So far, so good. But once you get the file down, you may notice something a little bit odd: the file is 3.6 MB’s in size. That’s larger than just about any spreadsheet I’ve seen, but then go one step further and unzip the file, and you’ll discover that the content.xml portion of his sample file explodes to 279.5 MB’s. That seemed a bit ridiculous to me, but I’ll set that aside for the moment. I then opened the file as he requested, and on my hardware which runs at a third of the speed of his test bed I can confirm that OO.o took just a couple of ticks short of forever to open the file, and my hard drive and CPU were seriously winded when they reached the finish line.

But the question here is: has Ou proven that OO.o is unusable, or that OO.o is unusable for a type of file that a very small percentage of users is ever likely to see? I could claim that Tomcat is unusable because it doesn’t scale like WebSphere XD, and while the latter point may be true it certainly doesn’t mean the former is.

As is probably obvious, I’m of the opinion that Ou, by choosing the example he did, has proven nothing with respect to general usage of OO.o. I just scanned my local directories here, for example, and the single largest spreadsheet I discovered – apart from the test file – is just shy of 1 MB. How does OO.o perform in that situation? The file opens in maybe 30 seconds or so; well within the realm of acceptable performance for this user.

I’m certainly not the only one to quarrel with Ou’s approach here – his talkbacks (ZDNet-speak for comments) are rife with people taking him to task for the size of the sample file, and the discussion has generated 230 comments so far and shows few signs of slowing down. He responded to one of those questioning his choice of a sample file by saying this:

I analyze perfmon log files that are very large all the time. OO.o would be too slow on these files. I’ve had users with very large files, maybe not 200 MB but 80 MB. Maybe it only takes 1 minute to open, but that’s unacceptable.

Ou’s contention then is that he selected such a large file because he believes that they’re relatively common; I personally don’t buy that. I believe rather that he picked it to make his original contention stronger; in his September 14th article, Ou made the following point:

Most computer users would pay a huge premium for hardware that is 2 times faster, so why would they want software that was up to 98 times slower?

98% slower does indeed sound horrifying, but practically speaking it’s only noticeable when you blow file sizes up to the couple of hundred meg range he’s talking about. When you’re dealing with the average spreadsheet that you or I might shoot around, the difference simply isn’t that significant – in other words, 98% of a time period measured in minutes is far more noticeable than 98% of one measured in seconds. Hence the near 300 MB file.

Interestingly, it’s not even that noticeable for more complex spreadsheets. It’s common knowledge that the folks that push their spreadsheets hardest are the finance geeks, so I took the time to email my brother this morning requesting a couple of reasonably complex spreadsheets for testing purposes. My brother, as a backgrounder, is I-banking trained in his usage of Excel [1] and currently employed by a relatively well known hedge fund. The files he sent over were financial models of two public companies, and essentially reflect the financial well being of the institutions in question in spreadsheet form. One spreadsheet has 7 sheets and the other 12, and the sizes? 188.5 kb and 294 kb, respectively. Both opened quickly in my copy of OO.o 2.0, and even with the macro warnings rendered properly and in maybe a 20-30 second timeframe. I asked him how often he dealt with huge Excel files of the size that Ou featured, and his response was that they were very much the exception to the rule – and his is the profession that conventional wisdom at least says are the true power users of the format.

Now that’s just one example, of course, and given that I can’t distribute the samples you can – as always – choose to believe it or not believe it. But I have to question any general analysis of a product which relies on something so far outside the norm of what your average user can be expected to use, and at least consider the fact that there’s some human nature at work. Is OO.o slower? Yup. Is Ou likely correct that OO.o is poor to quite poor at editing the document sizes he’s discussing? Certainly seems that way. But is OO.o that much slower for regular, average office software users? Not in my experience. Ou’s chosen example seems to me to be the technological equivalent of proof-texting, and says at least as much about the analysis as it does about OO.o.

[1] A skillset I most recently employed while house hunting, where he built me a very nice model for assets, liabilities, and income/expedenditures.


  1. I'm sorry, there is something that I'm missing here.
    Back in colege, the guys of Statistics course had to deal with word processing and spreadsheets of those sizes.
    With a students budget we had to bury lot's of money in hardware, do continuous saves and break the documents because, every few times a night, we had an error where Windows was telling us it didn't had memory to save the files (please close some applications, bla, bla, bla).
    Last time I had to set up an 1 hour presentation, I had to have over 20 presentations open (100 MB average in a 1GB RAM machine with 2GB SWAP). My Sun Blade 1500 was paging like mad and mozilla took forever to render but my O.S and Openoffice could take the heat.
    His points may be valid (memory footprint, cpu consumption, etc) but, in the end of the day, in extreme circunstances, it's the amount of times you lost all your work that counts. Saving your document in the middle of the work ISN'T natural having trust in your software is and, that, IMO, is far more important than mere performance when opening a document

  2. What I don't understand is why he, or anyone else, would take the time out of their life to attack OpenOffice. Or any other free, open source software project for that matter.

    Unless you're Microsoft (i.e., the guy making money off of the other product), what is the point of trying to take OSS down?

    Besides, the competition alone should foster a more healthy ecosystem and benefit everyone (perhaps even including the closed-source authors). More importantly, FOSS directly benefits the *billions* of people around the world that can't afford to buy a software license, even if they wanted to.

    Attacking open source software is a strange way for a professional tech writer to be spending their day. It is like a sportswriter picking on the relatively slow 50-yard-dash times at the Special Olympics. Sure, you may have a point, but just whose side are you on, anyway?

    (And besides, I agree with everything else you said, too, Stephen.)

  3. aha the old "but will it scale in production" chestnut, now applied to the desktop. very sneaky. its just one of the rhetorical pushbacks against lesscode, isn't it? he'll be arguing PHP can't match J2EE next…

  4. I have no proof to base this, but I suspect George Ou is a hatchet job. His piece seems to be the result of a brainstorming session at the Redmond Juggernaut "How could we attack OpenOffice? What are its weak points".

    After a while, "relatively slow compared to leaner office suites". Of course, this doesn't take into account that OpenOffice is a CROSS PLATFORM office suite, with a lot of code in there to generate widgets and stuff that might not be available on every OS.

    Then, the rest probably was easy: "let's build a sample file that makes OpenOffice.org score the worst compared to Microsoft's". And they did!.

    Think I'm paranoid?. Remember we're dealing with a convicted monopolist. A corporation which has a track record of:

    1. Generating bogus "public support" campaigns to the media, including the names of DEAD PEOPLE.
    "Letters to the editor are to be solicited from regional business leaders. Opinion pieces are to be written by freelance writers, and perhaps a "national economist," according to one document. The writers would be paid with costs "billed to Microsoft as an out-of-pocket expense."

    The campaign, which could cost millions of dollars, is designed to generate positive stories at critical junctures in Microsoft's legal battles. One round of stories, a document says, "will coincide with April 21 oral arguments before U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Microsoft motion to disqualify Lawrence Lessig as special master in Microsoft antitrust case."

    Microsoft campaign backfires: even dead people write in support of the firm http://www.linux.org/news/2001/08/24/0004.html
    2. Whose employees posed as regular users in public forums in order to SMEAR THE COMPETITION. See "Barkto incident" in the Compuserve canopus forum.

    The Barkto Incident http://lists.essential.org/1998/am-info/msg01529….

    3. Whose employees planted secret passwords.

    "Netscape engineers are weenies"

    Microsoft Admits planting secret password http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9595_22-519911.html?le

    4. Whose employees, ONCE AGAIN, apparently posed as independent consultants to smear the competition.

    Microsoft employee smears AOL's AIM http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9595_22-515423.html?le

    Do I have to go on to prove the kind of company and its tactics that the open source movement must fight against?

    Fernando Cassia – speaking for myself, not theinquirer.net which publishes my articles.

  5. Thanks Fernando. Yes, you do need to go on, and on, and on. Lest we forget the truly reprehensible business practices that have made the Redmond recidivist reprobate a digital dictator of the worst kind.

    The deliciously named anti trust settlement was sadly the best thing that could have ever happened to Microsoft. And the worst thing for the rest of the technology industry and the marketplace of computational consumers that industry serves.

    In effect, Microsoft was found guilty of illegal and reprehensible business practices, but was not punished or restricted in any meaningful way. This sent a chill throughout the technology industry so cold, that if not for open source, the emerging digital civilization would be frozen in place, with Microsoft killing at will anyone who dared challenge Redmond hegemony. The chilling message the settlement sent to the digital world is that there is no rule of law or authority willing and able to reign in even the worst of abuses from Microsoft. Chairman Bill can do whatever he wants. It's high noon at the Okay Corral, and the sheriff is a no show. It's every man for himself against an organized and incredibly well financed crime wave that knows no limits and fears no government.

    Witness the recent media player controversy. Why didn't any of Microsoft's victims speak out? They knew years ago what was going down, yet they were silent in the face of intimidation, threats, and demands that amount to exactly the kind of coercive extortion Microsoft has long practiced, and the settlement promised to end. That Microsoft did this with impunity and total disregard for the law ought to be an indication to everyone that nothing has changed. In fact, the settlement has legalized these blatantly anti competitive criminal activities in that there is zero cost to Microsoft, even when they get caught.

    As long as there is an Open Internet, there will be corporate and open source alternatives to Microsoft's digital empire. But this a war. Microsoft is not going to back off. In 1995 it wasn't Netscape and Java that Microsoft went after. It was and continues to be all about the Open Internet. Netscape and Java represented key provisions enabling the Open Internet to make that important transition from a simple connectivity and exchange platform to a truly open and competitive collaborative computing platform of applications, vast information services, and multi media content. None of which would be controlled by Microsoft.

    The current battle lines might be defined in terms of XML and Internet ready file formats, but it's still about the Open Internet. IMHO, Open XML technologies are absolutely essential for the Web 2.0 to become the computational platform we all hoped it would be. Given what Microsoft was willing to do to stop Netscape and Java, even while under investigation, how far will Chairman Bill now go to seize control of XML, and make certain his proprietary file formats become the grist for the future Internet information mill?

    One can only hope that Judge Kollar-Kotelly wakes up and smells the coffee. Without the rule of law, her laissez-faire approach has thrown us all back into the days of the wild wild west, where ruthless war lords armed with massive corruption war chests and vast mis information armies have their way.

    Sadly Fernando, your work of insisting on the truth has hardly begun,


  6. Jaime: neither of the packages is perfect, to be sure. but i do think – and many of the folks on oo-discuss seem to agree – that OO.o is indeed slow with documents of that size. but my point is that very few people proportionately deal with documents of that size.

    DeWitt: amen, brother, amen. i actually don't have a problem with him criticizing it, but he seems to have agenda to prove that it's unusable for anybody, which strikes me as remarkably unhelpful.

    James: that's exactly what it is, you're right. just as unhelpful this time.

    Fernando & Gary: i'll be the first to admit that there's much to be worried about in Microsoft's past history and conduct. but i'd hope that a.) we can appreciate that Microsoft is a big company of individuals, and many of them are good, reasonable folks, and b.) that Microsoft today is not Microsoft of the past. do they need to be closely watched and monitored? you bet. but let's not condemn them forever for mistakes of the past. let's not, as Gary says, forget, but maybe we can forgive just a bit.

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