In Service Pack 3 for Office 2003, Microsoft disabled support for many older file formats. If you have old Word, Excel, 1-2-3, Quattro, or Corel Draw documents, watch out!
Is this yet another format obsolescence horror story of the kind I discussed in an earlier post? Follow me below the fold for reassurance; this story is less scary than it seems.
The field of digital preservation has been heavily focussed on the problem of format obsolescence, paying little attention to the vast range of other threats to which digital content is vulnerable. I have long argued that the reason is that most people's experience of format obsolescence is heavily skewed; it comes from Microsoft's Office suite. Microsoft's business model depends almost entirely on driving its customers endlessly around the upgrade cycle, extracting more money from their existing customer base each time around the loop. They do this by deliberately introducing gratuitous format obsolescence. In the comments LuckyLuke58 makes my point:
Doubt it's really about security at all; I'm guessing it's probably more about 'nudging' the few people still using old versions of the software to upgrade: Those who currently exchange documents with users on newer versions will find suddenly they won't be able to send documents to anyone anymore without getting complaints that people can't open them. Deliberately making it too cumbersome and complex for most people to ever work around this, i.e. leaving it technically (but not really practically for almost everyone) an option, for now at least gives MS an excuse, while still taking a big step towards getting rid of support for those old formats entirely, which is not all that unreasonable I suppose for formats greater than 10 years old.
LuckyLuke58 gets the basic idea right. New instances of Office entering the installed base are set up to save documents in a format that older versions cannot understand. The only way to maintain compatibility is to use a deliberately awkward sequence of commands and ignore warnings. Every time someone with an older version gets one of these new documents, they get a forceful reminder of why they need to spend the money to get upgraded. This works particularly well in organizations, where the people with the power tend to have their computers upgraded most frequently. Telling your boss that you need an upgrade in order to read the documents he's sending you makes it hard for him to deny the request.
Because almost everyone encounters this kind of deliberate format obsolescence regularly, and because the cure for it (buy a more recent version of Office) is essentially forced upon them, they make two natural assumptions:
- Format obsolescence happens when the software vendor says it does.
- Format obsolescence happens frequently and regularly to all formats.
Both of these are wrong. The fact that Microsoft has ended support for old formats does not mean they can no longer be read. It just means that you can't use up-to-date versions of Microsoft's tools to read them. Microsoft's annoucement hasn't magically removed the support for these formats from any preserved binaries of the pre-upgrade tools, and these can be run using emulation. The Open Source tools that support these formats still work (see my post on Format Obsolescence: Scenarios).
Even if Microsoft did have magic powers to tamper with old binaries and source, it is pretty much only Microsoft formats that are subject to rapid gratuitous format obsolescence. A business model dependent on driving the upgrade cycle to extract money from existing customers is something that happens only to monopolists; everyone else needs to attract new customers. A reputation for frequent format obsolescence isn't a good way to do that. In fact, it isn't even a good way to keep existing customers. The formidable resistance Microsoft has encountered in trying to "standardize" OOXML in a way that allows them to continue to use proprietary lock-in and gratuitous format obsolescence to milk their customer base shows that even a monopolist's customers will reach their pain threshold eventually.
At first glance, this announcement from Microsoft appears to support those who think dealing with format obsolescence is the be-all and end-all of digital preservation. But it doesn't. Content preserved in these formats can still be rendered, and converted to more modern formats, using easily available tools. There are at least two ways to do this - open source tools, and emulated environments running preserved Microsoft tools. Its hard to construct a scenario in which either would stop working in the foreseeable future. And what has happened is not typical of formats in general, its typical of Microsoft. It is true that access to older content will be a little less convenient, but that is what Microsoft is trying to achieve.