Microsoft Simplifies File Format Fix

Microsoft Corp. changed course on an update to Office 2003 that blocked certain older file types from opening, after receiving a flurry of criticism from users and online publications.

Office 2003 Service Pack 3, a free package of updates and fixes released in September, blocked users from opening files created by older versions of Word, Excel and Power Point -- mostly programs launched in 1995 and earlier. The change also kept users from opening some files made in Corel Corp.'s CorelDraw.

Microsoft said opening the legacy file formats poses a security risk, and shut down easy access to the same older file types when it launched Office 2007.

For people who wanted to read the old files, the software maker built a workaround into Office 2007 that lets them open files they have stashed in a specific folder.

But the software maker devised a more complicated workaround for Office 2003 SP3 that involved modifying a user's PC's registry -- a crucial directory of settings the average computer user rarely deals with.

On Slashdot, a technology news and discussion site, more than 500 people logged comments about the issue this week. Some railed against what they saw as a way for the software maker to force people to spend money on new software, while others complained that Microsoft's security explanation wasn't accurate.

Microsoft took heed, and Friday unveiled a simpler way for people to unblock the older file types.

The new procedure -- which involves clicking on a series of links -- is detailed on the blog of David LeBlanc, a senior software development engineer for Microsoft Office.

"We did a poor job of describing the default format changes," LeBlanc wrote.

LeBlanc said Microsoft botched its explanation of the security issue. The code that reads file formats is what might open a user's PC to hacker attacks, but the file formats themselves don't pose a danger, as Microsoft had initially claimed.

Reed Shaffner, a product manager for Microsoft Office, said in an interview that Microsoft believes the number of users impacted is "not that great," based on data reviewed by the company.

Shaffner emphasized that Microsoft never made it impossible for people to open the older files, and said the company hasn't changed its stand on the possible security problem.

"Unless you need to work with these very old file types on a regular basis, it's probably not a good idea to keep these file types unblocked for long periods of time," he said.

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