padlockNote: I originally wrote this article in 2008 and published it on a different education blog. The blog is now defunct, but the article is cited by several others around the Internet. I’m re-publishing it here, with some minor modifications, and updating those links because my old blog will eventually disappear into digital oblivion.

I’m a big fan of open source products. I’ve written about my distaste for closed, proprietary solutions before, like Flash.

Microsoft Office is another beast I dislike. Why? Recent changes to the office suite are a perfect example of how users (and schools) are at the mercy of commercial software publishers. When they move on, you don’t have much choice. And if you can’t afford to move on, then you’re left in the dust.

Enter the Docx Beast

A student came into my classroom a few weeks ago, and he wanted to print something. Printers, ink, and paper are rare commodities around our building. Finding all three of these things in one place is like finding an oasis in the desert. [Note: We have since run out of ink, and it hasn't been refilled yet. Doh.]

He popped his flash drive in the computer, found the file, double-clicked… and then he looked confused. “Why isn’t it opening?”

Huh. Good question.

The computer was running Window XP and the then-current version of OpenOffice. I suspected the student had saved the document in an MS Office format, but that alone shouldn’t be a problem. OpenOffice can convert files from all the standard MS Office formats. In fact, I routinely save my files in the old .doc format so that my students can open them elsewhere (at home, in the library, etc).

When I looked closer, I figured out what was wrong. The student had a brand new version of MS Office at home, and he had saved the file in the default .docx format.

The latest versions of MS Office (2007 and 2008) support a new “Open XML” file format with a docx extension. It is completely incompatible with older versions of MS Office (like the version that’s on the school’s old Macs), and it doesn’t work with other standard office suites either (Open Office, Lotus 123, even the all powerful Google docs).

Luckily, the latest major revision of OpenOffice changes that. Open Office 3 provides support for the new MS .docx format, so you can edit documents created in this newest version of Office. [Note: Subsequently, Google has also implemented support for the Open XML.]

I just looked at the price list for Office 2007, and I’m disgusted. $150 just for the basic version? $240 for the cheapest full version as an upgrade?

Planned Obsolescence and Forced Adoption

In terms of usability, it would have made perfect sense for Microsoft to leave .doc as the default file format in Office 2007/2008. From a usability stand-point, the .docx format could have been implemented as an option, but by default the office suite could have saved files in the old, backwards compatible file format.

From a usability standpoint, this is desirable because there is little market penetration for the newer file format. If a person, like my student, comes home with a new computer and a new version of Office, then he may find his documents are unaccessible by many other people. This creates all kind of problems when you use computers in two places, like home and school or home and work. [Note: Read this guide if you need to save a file in the old Office format.]

Instead, Microsoft chose to force the new file format on its customers. By doing so, it did two things. It encouraged the propagation of the new format throughout the market, and in doing so it marginalized a competing XML format (the Open Document Format, from Sun Microsystems). By “retiring” the old file format, it also gave people the impression that their old software was out of date, heavily encouraging people to upgrade.

This is a perfect example of planned obsolescence. They retired an old format and then more or less forced people to upgrade to a newer, more expensive product. It’s also a great example of Microsoft using its near monopolistic market share to bully the market into following its whims.

For once, Microsoft isn’t the worst offender here, though. Adobe, the master of all creative software through it’s Creative Suite (i.e. Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign), routinely makes InDesign files in newer versions completely incompatible with older versions. Designers have to routinely upgrade if they work in tandem with other designers, and some even go to the trouble of keeping several versions of the software installed so they can create the proper type of file to send to a client or a partner.

But What IS This Open XML Format?

It’s a perfect example of how Microsoft mangles anything like a “standard” format, and how it insists on putting its proprietary stamp on everything it does.

XML is a method of storing information. It has been touted as the future of data storage, because it’s a standard format that can easily be read and modified by any program. It exists independent of platform and author. The RSS feed for this site is written in standard XML so that news readers can be written to understand that organize that information in any number of ways.

The greatest asset of XML is that it is a standards based format. Everyone knows how it is written, so everyone can write a program to parse it and to re-write it. Until Microsoft came along.

From MacInTouch:

The irony here is that Microsoft championed the RTF format as an application-neutral document exchange file format in the 80’s, then later created a new, forward-compatible file format for Office 97, and now that this format is a de facto standard that most applications can read and write consistently, Microsoft is replacing it with yet another file format – yet can’t consistently implement that format themselves.

Not only has Microsoft turned an open standard into a proprietary format, it has implemented it inconsistently across platforms. The Windows version (in Office 2007) isn’t structured the same as the Mac Version (Office 2008). Imagine how tough it would be for other office suite developers to make .docx compatible with their programs, if they couldn’t predictably determine what that file would look like.

Microsoft also conveniently ignored the fact that Sun Microsystems had already developed a standard XML file format (.odt, Open Document Text) that several office suites had already adopted and implemented. It was well documented and simple. Oh, and it was officially supported by the international organization OASIS.

Luckily, Microsoft’s ploy to force people into upgrading through planned obsolescence hasn’t been completely successful. OpenOffice (my office suite of choice) managed to implement the .docx format into its latest version, and Google eventually followed suit.

Perhaps the most ironic thing is that five years later, I still have schools in my computer that can’t open docx files. The new computers we’ve installed in the past year or two are iMacs which come with the new version of Microsoft Office. Some of the older Dell machines, running Windows XP, have been upgraded with a newer version of Office as well. But others still have neither the new version of Microsoft nor the compatibility pack that Microsoft has subsequently released to allow people to access docx files without upgrading.

Planned obsolescence becomes an even bigger problem when you work in an organization that can’t adapt, because you can literally end up being years behind the curve