Although the update shipped months ago, Microsoft has been feeling some recent heat over its decision to block all access to a slew of older file formats in its Service Pack 3 (SP3) for Office 2003.
Microsoft maintains that the SP3 changes, “>released in September, came about for security reasons. However, users argue that they could make companies’ archived files difficult, or impossible, to access in the future.
“Because these are, after all, old file formats … many users will encounter the problem only months or years after the software change, while groping around in dusty and now-inaccessible archives,” said user time961’s on tech gadfly site Slashdot.
Among the blocked formats are documents created or saved in Office 97 or earlier, as well as older Lotus 1-2-3, Corel Draw and Quattro files.
Microsoft sought to quell concern about the problem in December, when it published a knowledge base (KB) article outlining how to adjust the software’s settings so that Office 2003 can access and save documents in the blocked formats.
But some claim the settings are difficult to change, and that Microsoft’s warnings about its plans to block older files may have been overlooked by some users — perhaps many. That could come back to bite them later, the Slashdot poster wrote.
The reasoning behind blocking access to those formats, according to Microsoft’s KB article, is security — the older formats are “less secure,” the document states. “They may pose a risk to you.”
But critics like time961 charge that doesn’t apply to the ostensibly clean, internally created files archived by companies — and Microsoft doesn’t provide a simple way to enable access to those documents.
Keeping users safe while providing unfettered access to services has sometimes been a tough balancing act for the company. Microsoft admittedly remains a little gun shy when it comes to security, given years of pounding complaints from customers about software vulnerabilities.
Therefore, recent years have seen Microsoft favoring improved security over ease of access when a choice needs to be made. That’s essentially what drove this latest change, according to company representatives.
“As technology continues to advance, the more dated technology brings serious downsides from a performance/reliability and security standpoint,” a Microsoft spokesperson told InternetNews.com in an e-mail.
At least one longtime Microsoft observer sided with the software giant, citing an increase in malware targeting the productivity suite.
“We did spot the [file access] problems when Office 2003 SP3 shipped, but Office has been attacked much more intensely over the past year than in years past,” said Rob Helm, director of research for analysis firm Directions on Microsoft.
Ironically, the SP3 changes are the latest move in Microsoft’s response to users’ demands that it make their PCs and files more secure. Over the years, the company has blocked many potential avenues of attack on its products by implementing filters to stop break-in attempts.
“Some of the file formats that are being blocked weren’t covered by the filters,” Helm said.
This isn’t the first such effort by Microsoft. Office 2007 also blocked those same file formats by default when it shipped a year ago, the Microsoft spokesperson said.
“Microsoft did not do this without data showing that these file types were all but obsolete, [so] this has not had a significant impact on the millions of users, both consumer and enterprise, that have moved to the 2007 release,” the spokesperson said.