Document compatibility - Office 2004 for Mac

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Office 2004 for Mac writes documents differently to Office 2003 for Windows and despite all the promises, there can be problems trying to open a Mac created document in Office for Windows.

The biggest concern for anyone thinking of moving to Microsoft Office for Mac is document compatibility. Office for Mac writes documents differently and despite all the promises there can be problems trying to open a Mac created document in Office for Windows.

For most people this isn’t a big problem, the majority of standard formatting arrangements and settings won’t cause trouble. The problem comes when you start doing more unusual things including linking to other files.

In this issue we’ll look at the pitfalls of Office for Mac to Windows document compatibility. We’ll look beyond the ‘reassuring’ Microsoft statements and look at the Compatibility Report in Office 2004 for Mac.


Over the years Microsoft has changed the way it saves documents to your hard drive. They’ve done this to deal with new capabilities in the programs. In the early days of Office this happened with almost every new version of the product. Changing the file format means compatibility problems (earlier versions of Office can’t read the newer formats) and conversion issues (do you need to convert and how to convert existing documents).

Finally there was a revolt among large corporate customers who bore the brunt of the pain and cost of file format changes. Since Office 97 for Windows, Microsoft has mostly retained the same file format for Office programs.

I say mostly, because it’s not fully true. Take this statement by Microsoft:

“The cornerstone of Microsoft Office compatibility is its file format. Office 98, Office 2001, Office v. X, and Office 2004 for Mac – as well as Office 97, Office 2000, Office XP, and Office 2003 for Windows – all use the same file format. This means that a file created with any of these Office versions will open in any other version.”

This is carefully worded to be true while misleading to the unwary. There are features in newer versions of Office that older versions don’t know how to handle or work differently. The recent document will open in the earlier version of Office, but not everything will show up as it did in the original application.

Any Office for Windows user can see this for themselves. Go to Tools | Options | Compatibility in Word 2003 or the Preferences | Compatibility menu in Word 2004 where you can limit a document to particular features to ensure compatibility. Choose Word 97 from the list and you can see some features are disabled. Mostly relatively minor to be sure, but still not the full file compatibility you might suppose from Microsoft’s carefully worded statement.


Hence the arrival of the Compatibility Report in Office 2004 for Macintosh. This report is intended to alert and fix any potential problems with the document if it should be opened by another Office program.

By default, when you open a document in Office 2004 for Mac a compatibility check is done. If you see nothing then there’s no problem. You can do a compatibility check at any time

The default is to check compatibility for all versions of Office since Office 97 for Windows, across both Mac and Windows versions. You can narrow the report to check only for problems with a particular version of Office.

You can get a report at any time while editing a document from the Toolbox – the floating toolbar. Click on the spanner icon to see the report.

Also you’ll see an option to do a compatibility report when you reach the Save dialog.

If a problem is found you can click on the description to see a short explanation or click on Help to see a fuller explanation.

The Recheck Document serves two purposes. First it tells Office to check a document immediately. Second it forces a check on the whole document – apparently in some circumstances Office 2004 will not properly check a document on the first pass.


For each problem that the Compatibility Report finds you get the choices that you’d get for a spell check. Fix the problem or ignore it.

Click on a compatibility issue and the cursor will jump to that location in the document.

Fix will alter your document to remove the compatibility problem. You get the choice of fixing once or fixing all instances of the problem.

Not all problems can be automatically fixed in which case the Fix button is greyed out. For example a document with a symbol will get an error because Office 2004 for Mac is the first Mac version of Office to fully support Unicode characters (amazing but true). You have to change the text yourself to fix the problem.


As most Office users know, all Windows files need a file extension – the small set of letters after the fullstop. The extension tells Windows how to deal with a particular file. .doc to open Word, .xls to open Excel etc.

Extensions are not as important in the Mac world – so there’s a check box in the Save dialog called ‘Append File Extension’ which ensures that the right extension is added.

But the option does more than that and really should be called ‘Windows compatible file naming’. That because the option also replaces any ‘illegal’ characters in the file name (ie those that are allowed in Mac names but not in Windows) with underscores.

The ‘illegal’ characters include slash mark / , backslash , greater-than sign > , less-than sign


If you choose a font in an Office document that is not supported on another machine then Office will try to substitute a similar font. Usually the replacement is close but you can end up with a peculiar looking document.

This can be an issue regardless of whether the document originated on Windows or Mac but is more likely from Office for Mac.

Office for Windows has an option under Tools | Options | Save to embed the needed TrueType fonts in the document. This makes the embedded fonts available to any program opening the document. This option is NOT available in Office for Mac.

According to Microsoft you can use the following fonts in Office for Mac knowing that the document will appear OK in Windows:

Arial, Arial Black, Century Gothic, Comic Sans MS, Copperplate Gothic Bold, Copperplate Gothic Light, Curlz MT, Edwardian Script ITC, Impact, Lucida Handwriting, Monotype Sorts, Tahoma, Times New Roman, Verdana, and Wingdings.

In Excel the default font is different in Office for Mac or Windows. If this bugs you, change the Excel for Mac default font to Verdana.


Image portability isn’t a problem as long as you stick to the non-operating system dependant formats – and that is not hard.

GIF, JPG and PNG are all good choices. Microsoft recommends PNG format for Powerpoint 2000 or later.


The main difference between Excel for Mac and Windows is the date system. Both programs count date and time using numbers counting from an arbitrary date. In Windows the default start date is 1 Jan 1900 while on the Mac it is 2 Jan 1904. Those numbers are converted into dates to display but the raw data ‘underneath’ is just a number.

For example 11 Nov 1945 is 16,752 in Excel for Windows (default) while on the Mac it is 15,290.

In Excel for Windows you can switch to the 1904 date system in Tools | Options | Calculation but you might not need to make that change.

Worksheets moving from Mac to Windows are usually OK because the date system in stored in the file and used by Excel for Windows (overriding the default setting). You do need to be careful if you copy / paste cells between worksheets that have different date settings.


Generally there are not a lot of cross-platform compatibility issues. Some earlier Powerpoint don’t support all the features that later releases do.

If you stick to common fonts and compatible image formats (see above) then you should be in good shape.

At worst, save your presentation as a QuickTime movie and show it on the target computer that way.


When working on compatibility it is best to know the version of Office being used by the receiver. That’s Microsoft’s advice and they are right but it’s easier said than done.

You might not know what the receiver is using and it might not be convenient to ask. Calling a busy client to ask what software they use may not look too professional. In addition the person you’re dealing with may not know or know enough to be able to find out.

So, given that you might not know what your file will be opened with, what do you do? Here’s some suggestions that might work:


Rich Text Format – RTF is always a safe choice for sending files. Not only is it broadly compatible (you can even open most RTF files in WordPad) but it cannot contain any macros. This means there’s no risk of the document carrying a virus or you being the source of a virus infection.

Word 97 – or you can use the earliest version of the native file format supported by Word.


There’s a joint Microsoft Excel 97-2004 & 5.0/95 Workbook format that should in theory give you broad compatibility while still letting later versions of Excel access to more features.


Save in Powerpoint 97 format.


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