Office 2003 SP3 blocks old file formats

The move was done for security, says Microsoft, but still bewilders users

Microsoft Corp. deliberately broke access to older files, including many generated by its own products, to step up security with the newest Office 2003 service pack, a company evangelist said yesterday.

The months-old Service Pack 3 (SP3) for Office 2003, said Viral Tarpara, a U.K.-based IT evangelist for Microsoft, blocks old file formats for security purposes. "Some older file formats, including some from Microsoft, are insecure and do not satisfy new attack vectors that hackers can use to execute malicious code," maintained Tarpara. "The decision to block the formats is strictly to protect your machine from being compromised."

Office 2003 SP3 was released in September, and questions about file access error messages began appearing almost immediately on Microsoft's support forums.

Those questions continued into December. A user identified as "dberwanger" complained that he called Microsoft's support desk, but was told it would cost $250 to "fix a problem with SP3 that they created. Finally completely uninstalled Word 2003 and reinstalled (because you cannot just uninstall SP3) and the problem is fixed."

Microsoft has posted a document to its support database that includes a Windows registry hack that returns full file format access to Office 2003. Like Tarpara, the document claimed that the file blocking was done for security reasons. "These file formats are blocked because they are less secure. They may pose a risk to you," according to the document.

Among the blocked files are older Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint formats, as well as older formats used by Lotus 1-2-3 and Corel Corp.'s Quattro Pro -- a pair of ancient and aging spreadsheets -- and Corel Draw, an illustration program. Word 2003 with SP3, in fact, blocks a staggering 24 former formats, according to Microsoft, including the default word processing file format for Office 2004 for Mac, the currently available edition of Microsoft's application suite for Mac OS X.

IT administrators can download a group policies template from the Microsoft site to return formats from the dead, but individual users or smaller shops must instead edit the Windows registry, a daunting task that even Microsoft warns against. "Serious problems might occur if you modify the registry incorrectly," the company said in the support document. "Modify the registry at your own risk."

In a posting to a company blog yesterday, Tarpara recommended that rather than monkey with the registry, users convert documents in bulk to the OpenXML format -- Office 2007's default format -- using the tools in the Office Migration Planning Manager (OMPM) kit, which can be downloaded from Microsoft's site. "OMPM is great because it doesn't overwrite the original files at all, it simply makes a copy of the file in the new file format so there is no risk," said Tarpara.

Microsoft has touted Office 2007 and its OpenXML file format as more secure for months. And in May, the company unveiled Microsoft Office Isolated Conversion Environment, a tool for Office 2003 users that does a double file conversion on the fly to sanitize older formats by temporarily transforming them into OpenXML.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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