Once upon a time, for a period of about 8 years, picking a document format was safe and easy: save it as a Word document, a .doc file. The vast majority of businesses could open, edit, and print it with no difficulty whatsoever.

This mythical golden age of Word arose after Microsoft conquered the world of Word Perfect and Lotus 123 by bundling a “good-enough” version of each into a single package, Microsoft Office. After a few generations of painful Office upgrades where every new version had a slightly different file format, Microsoft finally matured into a format that it kept stable for three versions in a row—Office 97, Office 2000, and Office XP. And the overall interface has stayed stable much longer than that—there weren't any dramatic changes to the way you use Word between version 3 (when I started using it, back somewhere around 1987 on a Mac) and Office XP, in 2003.

With Office 2007, Microsoft completely changed the interface to its new “Ribbon” style. It also introduced a whole new file format. And now, only a year later, the new format is obsolete. Yet businesses are unknowingly starting to use this new docx format, not understanding that there are only a couple of minor advantages it has, while having several enormous drawbacks.


First, the benefits:

  • The file size is smaller.

  • There are a few new Office features that are only supported with the new formats. The only one we've found anyone actually using are some new animated transitions in Powerpoint.

  • That's all. Haven't been able to identify any other benefits.

Now the drawbacks:

  • Unless you're working with other people who have jumped off the cliff upgraded to Office 2007, you have to save as an earlier version of Office documents to ensure that others can open your documents-or make the people you send the documents to install viewers or plugins to be able to work with you.

  • Many governments have banned Office 2007 in their operations because of interoperability and document longevity concerns.

  • Microsoft spent scads on forcing the format through the International Standards Organization (ISO) to make its format an official standard, but Office 2007 files do not even conform to that standard.

  • Better alternatives exist.

If you really prefer the ribbon interface, or need to use Office for accessibility reasons (there's still better support for popular screen readers for Office than other systems), fine. But please don't send the rest of us the new formats-save the files as an older version so the rest of the world can read them.

Let's talk about formats a bit. The unfortunate new reality is that you're going to have trouble with formats again, like we all had in the mid-90s. Knowing a bit about what these formats are will help you deal with them when you get them.

There's basically 3 sets of formats you're going to see in the next few years:

  • "Old" Office formats: .doc, .xls, .ppt. These are the lowest common denominator. They are bigger, buggier, and have their share of problems, but everyone can open and work with them. If you need to send a document to someone and you don't know what office suite they use, send it in one of these formats.

  • Open Document format: .odt, .ods, .odp. These are the native format of OpenOffice.org 2.0, newer versions of WordPerfect, IBM Symphony, Abiword, Kword, and nearly any current office program not sold by Microsoft. The rest of the world has settled on these formats, and as an official ISO standard supported by multiple vendors, it's not going away anytime soon.

  • Open Office XML (OOXML): .docx, .xlsx, .pptx. In spite of the name, this format has nothing to do with open source. These are the new Microsoft Office formats, and Microsoft will allow anybody else to write software to read and write it, as long as they're not a commercial company.

Open Document got ratified by the ISO last year. It has a specification some 700 pages long, and was hammered out with the input of several competing vendors to arrive at a format they all could live with. While Microsoft was a part of the committee developing this standard, it did not contribute to the standard in any way. When it went to the ISO for ratification, Microsoft fought to keep the standard from being approved, saying it did not do everything a document standard needed, and proposed its own standard, OOXML.

OOXML, in contrast, is a "standard" described in some 6,000 pages. For all its wordiness, it apparently lacks specific details. Parts of the specification, for example, are a description of flags to set to make the document adhere to "legacy Word behavior," without actually specifying how that works. In other words, it's a bloated specification that attempts to enshrine past buggy behavior into something that only Microsoft could fully implement, and nobody else would want to bother even trying.

The lengths Microsoft pursued to get OOXML approved as an ISO standard is truly astonishing. For years their lobbyists have suddenly appeared in any US state that dares to propose adopting the OpenDocument standard, and in most cases shot such efforts down. In other countries, their lobbying has not gone as well, but they still managed to subvert the standards committees to get their format put into a fast track for ISO certification. Anecdotes about how standards committees suddenly had dozens of brand new members appear with no technical knowledge or understanding of the issues, all there to vote yes to OOXML adoption, never to be seen again. And even stranger things happened. In Norway, at the final vote, the chairman of the committee resigned in disgust when the country voted yes at the ISO meeting, after 19 of Norway's 26 national committee members had voted no. How an 80% no vote turns into a yes illustrates the dastardly dealings going on behind closed doors, with only one vendor with anything to gain.

After all of this scorched-earth lobbying, the ISO did ratify the OOXML standard. But in the 30-day period when the decision could be appealed, 3 countries filed an appeal on grounds that the process was not followed correctly, that some of the arguments against the standard were not allowed to be heard, and that the entire outcome had harmed the ISO itself.

At this writing, there is no further resolution, yet Microsoft has already surrenderred. It turns out that the few changes made to OOXML in the fast-track process were not implemented in Office 2007, and Microsoft decided it would not fully implement its own OOXML standard until the next version of Office-but it would support Open Document in the next service pack to Office 2007, in 2009.

So the gist of the situation is this: those .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx files you see flying around these days are an orphaned format. They're going to need to get changed yet again in the next version. Meanwhile, with Open Document you've got several choices of office suites, including, sometime next year, Microsoft Office.

Also see:


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