Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Response to .DOC Attachment

What do you do when you receive an email file attachment in Microsoft's .DOC format? Sure, we could open it in OpenOffice.org and go about our business, but there's no guarantee that this will remain true for future versions of .DOC. Use of proprietary formats are a danger to interoperability and to future innovation. One good thing to do is to reply to the email and explain why they should send the attachment in a standard format. I've seen several canned email responses in the past, but most are too brief to explain the issue, or too harsh in their wording to satisfy my tastes. I was prompted to write a response after receiving such an email attachment today, and I have combined some of the best ideas from elsewhere and added some of my own. Here is what I would recommend:
The document you have sent was not saved in an accepted format for Internet mail.

It was saved in a proprietary format that is unreadable on several types of computers because the method for decoding the document is kept secret by Microsoft and is purposefully changed with each new release of Microsoft Word so that existing users of Microsoft Word will be forced to pay for expensive upgrades in order to continue to read Word Documents sent by others. For example, in 2010, Microsoft Office Home & Business 2010 was priced at $279.99, and Microsoft Office Professional 2010 was priced at $499.99.

Recent versions of Word have started using a newer, patented OOXML format. In many countries, it is actually illegal for other products to decipher this format. This is a lock-in technique used by Microsoft to maintain their monopoly on Office software, and by extension, their monopoly on the operating system market, since they have not released a cross-platform version of Microsoft Office compatible with other operating systems.

In most cases, the size of the file saved in Microsoft's secret, proprietary format is also substantially larger than a standards compliant file containing the same information and the same formatting.

It is also important to note that Microsoft Word documents are often infected with viruses. Excel, Access, and Power Point files are also vulnerable to infection. This potential for infection is largely due to the Macro language and the "Visual Basic for Applications" language which are built into the format to provide powerful programming capabilities. While powerful, these features were not protected with proper security precautions, and the majority of users do not actually use these features or even know that they exist.

What to do instead:

If you continue to use Microsoft Word, please have the courtesy to “Save As” one of the following formats: ODT (if available), DOS Text, HTML, or Portable Document Format (PDF) and after saving, send the resulting file as an attachment.

Alternatively, you could use a product such as AbiWord, KOffice, Google Docs, NeoOffice, or OpenOffice.org that allows you to save your document in the Open Document Text Format (ODT), which is an ISO/IEC International Standard, and is supported by such notable companies as Apple, Adobe, Google, IBM, Intel, Nokia, Novell, and Sun Microsystems. If you don't have one of these programs, I would recommend OpenOffice.org, which may be downloaded free of charge and used for any purpose, personal or commercial.

A third option is to simply type your message directly into mail (instead of typing into Microsoft Outlook or Microsoft Word) so that you won't need to use an attachment at all.

In the highly unlikely event that your document cannot be converted to an open, non-proprietary format, consider printing it and mailing it by post, or scanning it, and sending it in a standard graphic format such as PNG or JPG.

Thank you.


Kym said...

I think if you sent me that reply after I sent you a doc, I wouldn't care to send it in any other format. You don't have to upgrade Office to continue reading the formats, and most people I know always save as .doc instead of .docx in 2007 and later versionf of Word. To call it a non-standard format I think is wrong - you even say that you can read it in OpenOffice, so just do that instead of demanding the sender resend in another of your preferred formats. It is an industry standard format, like it or not.

Jeff Day said...


I think you misunderstand my use of the word Standard. I mean a Standard, as in approved by a Standards Body such as ISO or IETF or W3C.

As long as people use .DOC, Microsoft retains the legal potential to shut people down (especially their competitors, if the competitors became big enough for them to care about, or wealthy enough for them to want to get money from,) due to patent and threatened lawsuits. Continued use of DOC prevents migration to a true standard, which would help to prevent that potential situation.