What Were They Thinking????

February, 19th 2008

Lately, we’ve been getting a number of calls (from clients and users here in our office) stating they can’t open a file that they are “absolutely positive” is a Microsoft Word document. These users aren’t crazy… Yes – it is a Word document they can’t open and it’s because the document was created in Microsoft Word 2007. You’ve got to wonder what goes through Microsoft’s programmer’s heads when they release a product that is not inherently backwards compatible. Are they trying to tick off the millions of MS Word 2003 users that don’t see a need to upgrade to 2007? Perhaps it’s just another way to scare consumers into a forced upgrade. What ever the thought process (or lack of) behind this decision, here’s a little explanation and a work around to help folks avoid an expensive upgrade. Microsoft Office 2007 provides a lot of new features and functionality. Here are some tips for dealing with compatibility issues when you upgrade to the latest version of Word.

Understanding and using the new file formats

All the Office 2007 programs use new default file formats based on the Extensible Markup Language (XML). The new formats are indicated by an “x” in the file extension. For example:

  • Word documents: .docx
  • Excel workbooks: .xlsx
  • PowerPoint presentations: .pptx

XML is an open standard, and the change makes it easier to move files between different applications. It also makes file sizes smaller than those saved in the old binary formats. However, some users with previous versions of Office may not be able to open files in the new formats. You can still save files in Office 2007 programs in Office 2003 file formats. Just select Word 97-2003 Document (*.doc) from the Save As Type drop-down list in the Save As dialog box, as shown in Figure A .

Figure A: You can easily save individual files in the old Office 2003 formats .

Changing the default format

If you want to always save files in the old format by default, click the Office button, then the <program name> Options button, and select Save in the left pane. Choose Word 97-2003 Document (*.doc) from the Save Files In This Format drop-down list, as shown in Figure B .

Figure B: You can set the default to always save files in the old Office 2003 format.

When you save a file in the old format that was originally created in the new format, you may get a message advising that some of the formatting and features that are only supported by Office 2007 programs will be lost but at least the majority of Word users will be able to open the document.

Using Office 2007 compatibility mode

Office 2007 programs introduce a new feature called compatibility mode. If you frequently share files with others who haven’t upgraded or you need to work on your files on another computer (for example, a laptop) that doesn’t have Office 2007 installed, you can ensure that the files you create in Office 2007 don’t contain any features that aren’t supported by the previous version of the Office program. If you place your Office 2007 applications in compatibility mode, incompatible features, such as the SmartArt diagramming tool, won’t be available to you. Instead, you’ll use the diagramming tool from Office 2003 so that the diagrams you create can be edited in the older version of the program. Compatibility mode is automatically on when you open a file that was saved in the old file formats, when you convert a file from the XML-based format to the older format, or when you configure the program to save to the old format by default. In Word, compatibility mode also kicks in if you create a new document from an old-format template (.dot). When the Office 2007 program is in compatibility mode, it will be indicated in the document title bar, as shown in Figure C .

Figure C:
Office Compatibility Mode is indicated in the title bar of the document.
Some features can be returned to the document if you reopen it in an Office 2007 program; others can’t. For a full list of the features that are lost when you work in compatibility mode and which ones can be refreshed, see the article “ Compatibility Mode in the 2007 Office System “ on the Microsoft TechNet site.

Installing the Office 2007 Compatibility Pack

If someone with whom you exchange files is still running an older version of Office and you want to be able to send them files in the new XML formats (for instance, so they can see the formatting features that are unique to Office 2007), they can install the Office 2007 Compatibility Pack. The Compatibility Pack allows users of Office XP or Office 2003 to open, edit, save and even create files in the new XML-based formats. The pack is available as a free 27.1 MB download from the Microsoft Web site . It can be installed on machines running Windows 2000 SP4, Windows XP SP1, and Windows Server 2003.

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