Microsoft's planned obsolescence smacks Office 2003

It seems as though the planned obsolescence that Microsoft committed so blatantly in Vista is now impacting Office 2003, too, with the arrival of Service Pack 3.

If you need to access old Microsoft file formats for early versions of Word, Excel, or Powerpoint -- but you've suddenly and dramatically found yourself unable to do so -- there's an intentional reason from Microsoft behind that conundrum, according to a bulletin put out by Microsoft last month.

The reason for the unexpected incompatibility is that, by default, the SP3 update, which became available in mid-September, blocks the file formats used by these older desktop productivity tools from Microsoft.

Moroever, the same also holds true for the file formats used in older versions of products that just so happen to compete with some of Microsoft's software offerings, such as the multiplatform Lotus Notes and Corel's Quattro spreadsheet and Draw software.

The excuse given in Microsoft's online document is that the earlier file formats from Microsoft and its rivals are "less secure" than the formats in Office 2003 and 2007.

"They may pose a risk to you," Microsoft warns customers.

But while the security issues may well be real, the company is coming across yet again as insensitive to many consumer and business users -- who because of financial, convenience, or philosophical issues, don't want to be forced by Microsoft to abruptly abandon tried-and-true technologies and transition immediately to Microsoft's latest.

Microsoft pulled a move along the same lines in its Vista operating system by failing to include driver support for printers and peripherals that worked perfectly well with Windows XP.

Due to business users' unhappiness with this and other aspects of Vista, Microsoft last fall started allowing downgrades back to XP.

Microsoft's push into planned obsolescence around its Office software is less obvious. But in a way, that's worse for customers, even if they do happen to work as IS (information systems) administrators for a living, and particularly if they don't.

Meanwhile, the workarounds offered in Microsoft's support bulletin are clunky and even potentially dangerous, requiring users who have downloaded the SP3 update to go into their system and update registry keys.

Microsoft does provide a choice of two methods for accomplishing this complex and tricky task. Under the first method, you can download and apply Administrative Templates in the "Office 2003 Service Pack 3 Administrative Template (ADM, OPAs, and Explain Text."

But as their name repeatedly implies, these templates are geared to systems administrators, not to garden variety end users.

Under the second method, you need to resort to an old-fashioned command line interface for manually setting the registry values -- a process that needs to be done over and over again each time with minute but precise variations -- for opening files saved in older versions of Microsoft's Word word processing program, Excel spreadsheet, and Powerpoint presentation package, as well as in Corel Draw.

As if that weren't bad enough, with Word for Windows and Macintosh software, you also have to insert a different registry value for each version of the program from Word 1.x to Word 97 or 98 -- sometimes using yet a different value for a beta version or an Asian language edition.

And Microsoft doesn't even provide any instructions in its bulletin at all for manually setting the registry values for the rivaling Lotus Notes or Corel Quattro.

Actually, users -- including systems administrators -- have been complaining about SP3-spawned software incompatibilities bitterly ever since the Office update became available for free download on September 18.

"Excel and Word hang once you open the application and select 'look in' -- this only started after Service Pack 3. Tried uninstalling the entire suite and reinstalling without any service packs and then just adding service pack 2 and the issue is still there," wrote one administrator in an online forum during early October.

Another administrator expressed strong displeasure about finding SP3 to have no uninstall option. "Since installing SP3 (which cannot be removed), none of my clients can open files created with apps from earlier versions of Office. The error is, 'You are attempting to open a file that was created in an earlier version of Microsoft Office. This file type is blocked from opening in this version by your registry policy setting,'" he noted in late September.

Although administrators might get some relief from Microsoft's SP3 support bulletin, it's doubtful that most non-technical consumer and business users will feel similarly.

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