January 2nd, 2008 at 10:24pm
I’m not sure if it’s a case of “let’s make life difficult” or “here’s a hidden feature, let’s pick a random setting for it”, but Microsoft have done it again. From the people who decided that Windows Vista didn’t need the rather useful telnet client installed by default and that support for 32 bit .hlp files was unnecessary but 16 bit .hlp files needed to be supported, comes the decision that various older office files should be locked out in Office 2003 Service Pack 3.
I can almost see a use for this feature in corporate environments where ancient file formats might be disallowed for security reasons, but even then it doesn’t make much sense. Such ancient files would almost certainly be internally archived files, and on the rare occasion that such an ancient file would be sent in an infected state, any anti-virus program worth it’s installation should be able to detect an ancient exploit.
The ancient files can be unblocked with some registry editing but that is going to be a painful annoyance for a number of IT departments that will now be forced to research the problem and then apply the fix, not to mention the inconvenience for the people trying to use older files.
By default the blocked files are:
A bunch of Lotus and Quattro spreadsheet files
.dif and .slk spreadsheet and database files
PowerPoint files prior to PowerPoint 97
MS Word files prior to version 6.0
I can’t see how these file formats could be considered a security risk because they really aren’t. The only logic I can see here is that Microsoft have decided to discontinue support for these formats so that they don’t have to write code that makes it possible for each new version of Office to understand the growing number of outdated file formats. Rather than just dropping support they are blocking the formats to see how many people jump up and down about it, and if there aren’t enough people complaining then support for the formats will be dropped.
It really comes back to the argument for open standards. A lot of these older files are not open standards, especially the older MS Office formats, and if it only takes 15-20 years for Microsoft to decide that the formats are no longer worth supporting, then what hope do governments, or anybody else required to keep records for that matter, have of maintaining records if they are using proprietary formats which are common today, but gone in twenty years?
At least with open standards it is possible for third parties to create software capable of working with the files. Currently the best that can be done is reverse engineering the formats…a process which produces good results, but not perfect results…and if we want to maintain files for hundreds or thousands of years, we need perfect results.
I suppose the best I can hope for here is that either:
1. Blocking, with the option to unblock, is as far as Microsoft will take this, or
2. Once Microsoft officially kill support for ancient formats, they release the formats as open standards. Obviously they can only do this with formats they own the rights to (eg. not Lotus or Quattro), but it would be a step in the right direction.