Another flawed Office update tells users to buy the suite

Breaks file associations in Office 2010 Starter Edition; some customers smell conspiracy

Microsoft yesterday acknowledged yet another problem with its Sept. 10 updates, confirming that one of those fixes broke Office 2010 Starter Edition by changing the file associations of already-created documents.

"After installing this update, some users have reported they are unable to open files by double-clicking them, that the file type icons have changed, and that they must go to the application to open files," Microsoft's Office team said in a company blog post Wednesday.

Some customers, said Microsoft, were even told that they needed to buy a copy of the full-scale Office, which starts at $140 for Office Home & Student 2013.

Naturally, that caused some customers to wig out, as their suite -- Office 2010 Starter Edition -- had come free with their PCs.

Starter Edition, which Microsoft did not revive for Office 2013, was the company's 2009 replacement for Microsoft Works, an entry-level application suite that had been offered to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) for bundling with new PCs. Starter included Word 2010 and Excel 2010. As Microsoft's free OEM offer, Starter was to give new PC buyers a taste of the productivity suite in the hope that they would later pony up for one of the paid editions.

The free edition also included advertisements, the first of Microsoft's market-leading desktop suite to do that, and limited the functionality of Word and Excel. However, they were not time-sensitive versions that stopped working at some point, as earlier Office trial editions had done.

Within hours of the Sept. 10 updates -- part of a larger-than-average Patch Tuesday slate -- users began reporting problems on Microsoft's support forums.

"I have Microsoft Office 2010 Starter. Suddenly, all my files are in .docx format, and I cannot open them," wrote "Kloi" on one thread last Wednesday. "I get a message saying I need to purchase Office. Why has this suddenly happened? How can I change it back?"

Others chimed in to say that they too could not open documents by double-clicking because those files icons had gone blank or turned a strange orange hue.

Among those who saw messages to buy a copy of Office, the more conspiracy-leaning quickly jumped to the conclusion that it was a Microsoft move to force them to upgrade to the full version of the suite.

"Microsoft gets me to put all my files on Word Starter and then holds them hostage forcing me to pay," said "kjeld65" on the same thread. "I was deceived, tricked, and now held hostage by Microsoft. I WILL NOT PAY MICROSOFT HOSTAGE MONEY, AND I WOULD ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO DO LIKEWISE."

In reality, the gaffe was simply that, said Microsoft, not a plot to separate customers from their cash.

"The operating system has lost the association between a file type and the application that it is supposed to open it," said the Office team. "This does not change the file, this only affects the relationship between the operating system and the applications associated with the documents."

The company showed users how to reestablish file associations, but warned that in some cases customers may need to repair Office 2010 Starter Edition using the "Uninstall or change a program" Control Panel tool.

Yesterday's admission by Microsoft was the latest in a string of update snafus the company's dealt with this month. Last week, an Office 2013 stability and performance update blanked the folder pane in Outlook 2013, and other updates repeatedly demanded they be installed even though they had already been deployed by users.

Those followed buggy fixes shipped in August and April that blocked access to server-based email mailboxes and crippled Windows 7 PCs.

The trend in declining quality has set patch professionals on edge, and has caused many to call for Microsoft to get its act together.

Microsoft has been publicly apologetic at times, but has not said specifically what it will do to prevent flawed updates in the future. "I apologize again for the difficulty this has created," wrote Gray Knowlton, a principal group program manager for Office, on the Patchmangement.org mailing list, or listserv. "We are aware and are doing all we can to get this set right now and for future releases."

Susan Bradley, a moderator on the listserv who also writes a weekly column on patching for the "Windows Secrets" newsletter, and who last week emailed Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer asking him to appoint a top executive to investigate the problems, had a suggestion for Knowlton and his firm.

"Enough is enough. Let's reboot this process and see what really is broken here," Bradley said on the listserv Tuesday. "Obviously there are testing issues (Exchange team admitted to not dogfooding that 2013 update), and just as importantly what appears to me to be a lot of communication issues."

Microsoft's next regularly scheduled updates are to ship Oct. 8.

Microsoft web page
After a flawed update last week, some customers running Office 2010 Starter Edition were told they needed to purchase the full-fledged suite to open their files. (Image: Microsoft.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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