Relax, Theyre Just New Microsoft File Formats

Opinion: After Microsoft's Office 97 debacle, the company's plan to change file formats when it releases Office 12 may be alarming to some. But there is hope Microsoft won't repeat the same mistakes.

There are three things in life that should be postponed for as long as possible. Two of these you are already familiar with: death and taxes. The third is less well-known but is also something wed just as soon take a pass on, though it eventually catches up with us.

Im talking about changes in file formats, particularly widely used file formats where small changes, improperly managed, can create huge problems. OK, so this isnt fatal, though some users confronted with files that wont open have certainly wished they—or more likely some Microsoft programmer—were dead. As for taxes, the cost of managing a big change in file formats can be considerable.

If you dont believe me, then you didnt live through the Office 97 debacle, where unexpected changes in file formats caused huge compatibility issues for almost every Office user. It took Microsoft years to get rid of these ensuring compatibility issues, but eventually Redmond solved the problem and life has been happy ever since.

At least until this morning, when I learned of Microsofts plan to change file formats when it releases Office 12 during the second half of next year. Now, its rare that Microsoft sends out a bum press release, but I think the one explaining the format change was a doozy. It began:

"REDMOND, Wash.—June 2, 2005—In a move to bring new levels of data interoperability to its customers and new market opportunities to technology providers throughout the industry, Microsoft Corp. today announced that it is adopting industry-standard XML technology as the default file format in the next version of Microsoft Office editions, currently code-named Office 12."

/zimages/5/28571.gifTo read more about Microsoft adding XML file formats to Office 12, click here.

None of that convinced me that this is a good thing. Nor did it give me warm-and-fuzzies that Microsoft isnt going to botch this format change up as badly as it did Office 97. I dont need "new market opportunities" nearly as much as I need my computers to be able to share Office documents. As for XML, most people still think its some oddball shirt size.

What the release should have said is something like this:

"Are you sitting down? Are you relaxed? Well, Uncle Bill has some news for you. Its not bad news, but its something he wants you to be prepared for and understand. No, youre not being punished. This isnt going to happen for a year, but the file formats for Word, Excel and PowerPoint are going to change. But Uncle Bill promises this wont hurt at all."

After reading the news release, I called a few friends that I knew had horrific Office 97 experiences. I wanted to break the news to them that the change is in the offing and see what the reaction was. For some, I read the Microsoft release. Others heard my softened-up version, which went over much better. I am not sure it was believed, but it did dull the shock of hearing the news. No one in this circle seemed particularly thrilled about the change.

But theres reason to hope that 2006 wont be a repeat of the mistakes of 1997. From the release and subsequent interviews Ive read, it appears Microsoft execs have learned the lessons of Office 97. Or at least they are making the right noises.

/zimages/5/28571.gifRead more here about the latest on Microsofts upcoming Office 12.

First, Microsoft is giving customers a years notice and big explanations of whats being done, why its being done, and what the benefits will be. From what I can tell, there are excellent reasons for changing the file format, but it will be interesting to hear the buzz coming from TechEd next week in Orlando, where the change is being formally introduced.

Microsoft makes the transition sound like it will be painless, even transparent, unless you notice the "x" tacked on to format names like .doc, which becomes .docx in the land of XML. To accomplish this transition and offer backward compatibility, Microsoft says it will support legacy formats in Office 12 and promises an add-in enabling Office 2000, Office XP and Office 2003 to read and write the new format.

Still, Microsoft will need to show some tangible, right-now benefits for customers who move to the new formats. IT organizations will be wooed by the wonders of XML, improved security and the promise of smaller file sizes. This could result in significant savings in storage costs, but well have to see if this is offset by all the metadata that Longhorn will want users to create to support its metadata file searches.

/zimages/5/28571.gifMicrosoft is planning to support Raw images in Longhorn. Click here to read more.

The benefits of the new formats may, however, be lost on everyone out in userland, where XML remains barely noticed, much less understood or sought out. I am not sure XML is something users really need to understand, but if the new formats are to be successful, it would be nice if clear user benefits were included in the plan.

Microsoft can be expected to launch a charm offensive on behalf of the new file formats, giving everyone a chance to see them in action before anyone is asked to actually start using them.

During this time, well get to see if the lessons of Office 97 have been properly learned and whether XML brings real benefit to the average Microsoft Office customer. I am not sure what the outcome will be, but so far, Microsoft seems to be off to a good start.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers.

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