Analysts: Microsoft Handled File-Blocking Controversy Poorly

Analysts say Microsoft could have avoided much criticism if it had made a few phone calls to Corel and key customers.

While analysts agree that Microsoft could have better handled the issue of Office 2003 Service Pack 3's blocking of a number of file formats, they say the software maker had no ill intent with the move.

"Microsoft has been getting hammered by attacks on Office, so shutting down import/export filters by default was a cheap way to close off further potential avenues of attack. I think this move shows more fear than malice," Rob Helm, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, told eWEEK.

Microsoft probably simply did not want to have to worry about threats to certain parts of the Office code base and decided to turn off the code for those file formats by default, he said, noting that this was a "defensible policy that has worked very well for other parts of Microsoft, such as the Windows team."

Microsoft was criticized by Corel and some customers for its decision to block older file formats with Office 2003 SP3, which it released last September. The only non-Microsoft file format blocked by SP3 was Corel's CorelDraw .CDR files.

But, on Jan. 4, the software maker relented and provided a new and easy way for customers to unblock the files that were shut off by default when they installed Office 2003 SP3.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, says that, given the exposure Microsoft has had to older formats and the past mistakes it has made with regard to third parties and security, "I think it is more likely they simply didn't anticipate the response they got, figuring that everyone on the vendor side would be happy to have more motivation to move customers to newer products."

Not getting external support for decisions like this is a recurring problem with Microsoft. "I don't think they thought through this; it has all of the earmarks of a mistake, and big companies often make a lot of them," Enderle said.

The software maker should have communicated what they were planning, asked for feedback, and then acted on that, he said. It should also have called and spoken to Corel, Boeing and a couple government accounts. "Three or four calls would have likely been enough to showcase that this was going to be a problem and given them the opportunity to avoid it," Enderle said.

While Chris Swenson, an analyst with the NPD Group in New York, agrees that Microsoft could have handled the issue better, he also finds credible its explanation that some of the older file formats are more susceptible to exploits and Word Macro viruses.

"There are also few customers using the older Microsoft formats in question and, among those who are, most are in the enterprise rather than home users," he said.

But all is not lost for those users of older versions of Word, as converters exist, such as DataViz Conversion Plus for Windows and MacLinkPlus for the Mac, which convert older file formats to a new format.

But there is a catch: The DataViz converter only works with Windows 2000 and later versions. "So if you're running an ancient version of Word in Win 95, you can't use DataViz as an option. But you can still create RTF [Rich Text Format] files with the older versions of Word in question, and in competitive applications, which bypasses the need for other applications," Swenson told eWEEK.

In addition, those customers using older versions of Word can use an old copy of Acrobat and start sending electronic documents to any PC or Mac user, he said.

Directions on Microsoft's Helm was surprised by the amount of heat this issue generated, which he attributed to the Office team's success.

"The last couple of service packs prior to this one went reasonably smoothly, and later service packs usually make less extensive changes than the ones that came before. In retrospect, Microsoft should probably have issued a press release, done some blog entries, and in general treated Office 2003 SP3 more like an interim release," he concluded.