File format blues

Routinely suppliers of technology and services send me a presentation deck. This deck is to meant to be the central focus of a conversation about their products or services.

Routinely suppliers of technology and services send me a presentation deck. This deck is to meant to be the central focus of a conversation about their products or services. One would expect that these suppliers, or their public relations firms, would do their best to make sure that these presentations were in a format that was as broadly accessible as possible.

How a file format can become an irritant

It is irritating when a supplier representative or PR professional sends out documents or presentations in a format that assumes that everyone is using the office productivity software that they are using. Presuming that everyone is using Microsoft's newest format, a format that is not compatible with older versions of Microsoft's software without loading additional software, isn't wise. At best, this leads to a time-wasting round of "would you please resend the deck in another format" messages. As worst, it gives the impression that the supplier is not listening to its customers.

Sending DOCX or PPTX files can be a mistake

Microsoft's Office 2007 can be made to create documents in the same format as used by Office 97/2000/XP/2003. Unfortunately, that is not the default setting. While it is easy to change this setting, many do not do this because they never wade into the huge number of parameters to figure out which one is the one they should adjust.

This, by the way, is a tactic Microsoft has used for over a decade to induce organizations to jump into a broad installation of its software. All it takes is for the CEO or a VP of something or other to start sending files in the newest format, a format that can't be read unless the recepient upgrades to Microsoft's newest product too, for everyone to be knocking on the IT department's door to get the new software too.

Microsoft typically addresses this issue by offering a plug in for older versions of software (usually only the recently replaced version of software, not software two or more versions back). In this case, Microsoft has made plug-in software allowing Office 2003 to access the new formats. The fact that a plug in has been made available for Microsoft's own products doesn't do a bit of good for those using other office productivity packages such as OpenOffice.Org or its cousin NeoOffice.

Furthermore, even if a person is using an older version of Office on their system, Microsoft requires that everyone load and run it's "Windows Genuine Advantage" software just to get the plug in. Microsoft's WGA is based upon the assumption that all of Microsoft's many customers are thieves and must be monitored constantly to prevent theft of Microsoft's products.

Security experts have tracked what messages WGA sends back to the mothership and showed that WGA is tracking a great deal more than Microsoft lets on and contacts the mothership on a much more frequent basis than people know. While I have nothing to hide, I don't run software that shows that the vendor thinks that everyone is a thief. I just move my operations to other, less hostile products.

Oh, by the way, if your organization standardized on one of the many forms of Windows Vista, WGA is built in and you have no option to run your computer without it. How special.

OpenOffice.Org file formats to the rescue?

Presuming everyone is using productivity packages such as OpenOffice.Org (or NeoOffice on the Mac) isn't a good choice either. Users of Microsoft's office products won't be able to do much with those documents or presentations.

OpenOffice.Org, available on many systems, has the ability to publish documents and spreadsheets in a format compatible with Office 97/2000/XP/2003 and in the Adobe Acrobat format.

How about XML?

Using what appears at first glace to be a standard, XML formatted files, isn't always a safe bet either.

Some suppliers have used the standard XML format as a springboard to jump off into their own proprietary formats. Unless someone is using that vendor's software, the file is not usable even though the container was standard.

What's an IT professional to do?

It would be safer to assume that people are using a diverse selection of tools. This means that reaching out to them requires thinking a bit.

File formats that are broadly accessible are better than using formats that only one product supports.

Today safe choices include using either DOC or PPT, Microsoft's 97/2000/XP/2003 formats, or PDF, Adobe's Acrobat format.  The only other safe choice is to send out boring text files.

Reality on the ground

Why then, do I frequently receive presentation decks or documents formatted as Microsoft Office 2007 files and have to request that the person resend them using a more friendly format?

It's my best guess that one of the following things could describe what's happening.

  • The person doesn't know how to use all of the features built into their personal productivity software and has no idea what format documents and presentation decks are being produced.
  • Their organization has standardized on a specific version of software and, by gosh, everyone else must use that software too.
  • They're so overworked and are in such a rush, they don't think about file formats at all and just send out what their document processing or presentation software churns out.

Have you had to deal with this? What do you do?