Forced Obsolescence

ZDNet’s David Meyer noted earlier today that Google is about to shut down support for exporting the legacy Microsoft Office file formats (.doc, .xls, and .ppt) from Google Apps as of October 1, 2012. The Google blog notes that Google Apps users will still be able to import data from those formats. However, if they want Office compatibility, they need to export to the Office 2007 formats (.docx, .xlsx, and .pptx).

When Office 2007 was still in beta back in 2006, Microsoft released optional patches to Office 2003 to allow it to open and save the new file formats. Over time, these patches got included in Windows Update, so if you still have Office 2003 but have been updating, you probably have this capability today. Office 2003 can’t open these newer documents with 100% fidelity, but it’s good enough to get the job done. And if you’re on earlier versions of Office for Word, Microsoft hasn’t forgotten you; Office 2000 and Office XP (2002) users can also download the Compatibility Pack.

What boggles me are some of the comments on the ZDNet article. I can’t understand why anyone would think this was a bad idea:

  • The legacy formats are bloated and ill-defined. As a result, files saved in those format are more prone to corruption over the document lifecycle, not to mention when moving through various import/export filters. Heck, just opening them in different versions of Word can be enough to break the files.
  • The legacy formats are larger — much larger — than the new formats. Between the use of standard ZIP compression (the new format documents are actually an archive file containing a whole folder/file structure inside) along with smart use of XML rather than proprietary binary data, the new formats can pack a lot more data into the same space. Included picture files, for example, can be stored in compressible formats rather than as space-hogging uncompressible bitmaps.
  • The legacy formats are safer. Macro information is safely stored away from the actual data in the file, and Office (at least) can block the loading and saving of macro information from a variant of these files.

For many companies it would simply be cost-prohibitive to convert legacy files into the new formats…but it might not be a bad idea for critical files. Nowadays, I personally try to make sure I’m only writing new format Office files unless the people I am working with specifically ask for one of the legacy formats. I’m glad to see that Google is doing the right thing in helping make these legacy formats nothing more than a historical footnote — and I’d love to see Microsoft remove write support for them in Office 2013.