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The mystery Word patch

Microsoft says it’s been working on the Word 2007 patent patch for months, so why does it look like a rush job?

As we’ve previously reported, Microsoft lost another round of the ‘Custom XML’ patent case and must stop selling, in the USA, Office 2007 with the offending code after 11 January 2010.

According to Microsoft it has been preparing for this eventuality since August. We’ve been carefully watching their actions and they give all the indications of a hasty, ill-planned operation.

We know that Microsoft has released a patch for suppliers of Office on new computers. That patch will be used by PC makers to ensure that computers sold after 11 January 2010 to US customers won’t contain Office 2007 with the offending code. Microsoft hasn’t announced that, but the existence of the OEM patch quickly became common knowledge.

As a result of the information vacuum from Microsoft there are all sorts of stories flying around – some of which may be true but others seem very strange.

If Microsoft had truly been planning for months there would have been a single announcement of all the information relevant to the court ruling and the 11 Jan 2010 deadline. Instead there’s a single bland statement that tells Microsoft paying customers nothing.

There’s talk of a patch for end users. That means an update for existing and non-US users that will change their copy of Office so it won’t run the patent disputed code. If there is such a patch, we can’t understand why Microsoft would release it or why anyone would want to use the update.

As far as we know, the court ruling only applies in the USA and only to Microsoft Office sold after 11 Jan. 2010. Existing Office users and those outside the USA are not affected and can use their current Office with the disputed code.

So why bother with a patch for customers not affected by the court ruling?

We can only think of one, unusual, situation where an existing Office user would want to cripple their software and even then it’s a poor choice.

It’s possible that Microsoft wants to release an ‘end user’ patch in an effort to reduce the amount they’ll have to pay to the patent owners for use of the ‘appropriated’ code. If that’s the case then the patch is entirely for Microsoft’s corporate benefit and there’s no advantage for customers.

Even if you don’t use the ‘Custom XML’ feature, removing the feature from an existing and known stable release of Office isn’t prudent.

Any unnecessary Office patch should be avoided here’s why …

The patch problem

Microsoft Office is extremely complex software with all manner of relationships between features – these relationships can be deliberate or accidental. Some of these relationships are known but a good deal many are unknown and only appear when trying to make unplanned edits to the code.

That means a change in Office can cause even more bugs – sometimes the patch is worse than the original problem.

Microsoft developers know this. Sometimes they release a quick ‘hotfix’ for a specific problem. These hotfixes come with a warning that the fix hasn’t been fully tested and should be used with caution.

Despite all the in-house testing, sometimes Microsoft releases a patch that itself has bugs. Occasionally Microsoft has to release an update to cover a problem caused by previous update.

Of course, it would be better if all software patches were perfect and Microsoft has the resources to do lots of testing. It’s a sign of how difficult software patching is that even the massed Microsoft mind sometimes gets it wrong.

In this case it’s possible that the patch to remove the ‘Custom XML’ code will cause some other fault or ‘issue’ in Office 2007. If the patch isn’t necessary, why should customers take the risk?

Almost Identical TWIN Office 2007’s

There’s another concern related to the upcoming Office 2007 without the ‘Custom XML’ feature. How to tell different Office 2007’s apart.

Consider this scenario (as Microsoft support likes to say) …

You have two computers, both running Office 2007. One was purchased in 2009 and the other after 11 Jan 2010. How can you tell if the younger machine has the crippled (ie non Custom XML) Office 2007?

Ideally there will be some clue in the About screen, but from past experience customers will be told to dig around in obscure DLL files instead.

The difference isn’t just for people who use the Custom XML feature (a feature that Microsoft has boasted and promoted for years but is suddenly called ‘little used’).

Any support person faced with a mysterious bug has to face the possibility that the problem is with the newer crippled Office 2007.

Microsoft itself will face a similar problem for future security patches to Office 2007. The fixes will have to be tested against two different software bases – the original Office 2007 and the post-11 Jan crippled Office 2007.

Office 2007 Retail Boxes 

One of the problems with Microsoft bland statement is that people read into it things that aren’t there. Microsoft has said that adjusted versions of Word and Office 2007 will be ‘available’ for US sale by the 11 Jan 2010 deadline. There’s nothing about removing existing stock from shelves yet some people have assumed that’s the case.

Based on past experience, existing Office 2007 stock won’t be removed from retail stores. Microsoft might make some noises but it will be mostly talk with little action, let alone enforcement. Recalling stock is expensive and time-consuming so Microsoft and retailers will avoid it whenever possible.

On top of that there’s a labeling issue – will the new ‘crippled’ Office 2007 have anything on a retail box to indicate that it’s different from the Office 2007 sold before 11 Jan 2010? Chances are that there’ll be no easy way to tell the two retail boxes apart – something that suits Microsoft and retailers nicely.


No doubt Microsoft will dismiss all these concerns or ignore them entirely. That’s part bravado and part amnesia – Microsoft has many strengths but a long corporate memory isn’t one of them.

We’ll be keeping a close eye as this change to Office 2007 unfolds.

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