Is it a risk to save documents in Office 2007 formats?


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Office users should not worry about changes to the Office 2007 formats, but developers need to watch out.

If you’ve read some comments about the OOXML (aka Office 2007 document formats) then you might be worried about saving files as docx xlsx etc – while the concerns are justified there’s no cause for panic.

Bob Sutor is one of the smart people who works on approving Internet standards and is currently examining the fine details of Microsoft’s proposal to make the Office 2007 documents into a formal standard known as OOXML (Open Office XML) so when he’s quoted as saying:

saving your documents in OOXML format right now is probably about the riskiest thing you can do

then alarm bells go off.

But don’t panic, Mr Sutor is rightly talking about long term compatibility and interoperability of current Office 2007 documents – not their ability to be opened in Microsoft Office.

One of the advantages with OOXML (and the rival ODF for that matter) is that all the information is stored in XML format. That means any program can open the document to read or write information. For example, a program could work through some Excel .xlsx worksheets extracting certain information. Yes, that can be done with xls files but it’s much harder and less reliable.

Mr Sutor’s concern is that the current Office 2007 documents (as saved in Office 2007 or Office 2008 for Mac) are based on a slightly different specification than what will eventually be approved as the OOXML specification.

Amazingly, the original Microsoft proposal to the International Standard Organisation does NOT match the format used in Office 2007. Whatever happens with ISO approval of the Microsoft proposal, there will be a technical gap between the approved format and what Microsoft has implemented in Office 2007.

Microsoft’s original proposal for OOXML has been amended as a normal part of the approval process. Therefore, more changes to OOXML are probable.

For most people the changes are irrelevant, and they’ll be able to open and save docx files in Microsoft Office whether they are in the original, a slightly revised ‘official’ format or some future incarnation. Each OOXML document contains a line indicating the specification version used in that document.

After OOXML is approved (and let’s be honest, it’s a case of when, not if) Microsoft will, presumably, update Office so that documents are saved in the official ISO format. But all docx files should be accessible by Office 2007 and future versions of Microsoft Office.

Microsoft should publicly undertake to produce a bulk converter to ensure documents are regularised to a single ISO approved version of OOXML. The company hasn’t done that and probably won’t for byzantine reasoning of its own. In any event, Microsoft hasn’t done a lot to promote the use of OOXML in its own products, let alone help people and companies adopt the format. Only recently Office 2008 for Mac has implemented the OOXML formats with converters for earlier versions of Office for Mac still outstanding more than a year after Office 2007 was released.

The concern for developers and planners is that their detailed work for systems needs to rely on a single consistent specification – and that doesn’t exist yet. If you’re developing a system to work with OOXML / Office 2007 documents you should wait until the specification is independently confirmed.

But Microsoft Office users don’t need to be concerned about these technical changes – their documents will be compatible for the foreseeable future.

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