Office 2003 SP3 blocks old file formats. (The move was done for security, says Microsoft)


Microsoft Corp. deliberately broke access to older files, including
many generated by its own products, to step up security with the
newest Office 2003 service pack, a company evangelist said yesterday.

The months-old Service Pack 3 (SP3) for Office 2003, said Viral
Tapara, a U.K.-based IT evangelist for Microsoft, blocks old file
formats for security purposes. “Some older file formats, including
some from Microsoft, are insecure and do not satisfy new attack
vectors that hackers can use to execute malicious code,” maintained
Tapara. “The decision to block the formats is strictly to protect your
machine from being compromised.”

Office 2003 SP3 was released in September, and questions about file
access error messages began appearing almost immediately on
Microsoft’s support forums.

Those questions continued into December. A user identified as
“dberwanger” complained that he called Microsoft’s support desk, but
was told it would cost $250 to “fix a problem with SP3 that they
created. Finally completely uninstalled Word 2003 and reinstalled
(because you cannot just uninstall SP3) and the problem is fixed.”

Microsoft has posted a document to its support database that includes
a Windows registry hack that returns full file format access to Office
2003. Like Tapara, the document claimed that the file blocking was
done for security reasons. “These file formats are blocked because
they are less secure. They may pose a risk to you,” according to the
document.

Among the blocked files are older Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint
formats, as well as older formats used by Lotus 1-2-3 and Corel
Corp.’s Quattro Pro — a pair of ancient and aging spreadsheets — and
Corel Draw, an illustration program. Word 2003 with SP3, in fact,
blocks a staggering 24 former formats, according to Microsoft,
including the default word processing file format for Office 2004 for
Mac, the currently available edition of Microsoft’s application suite
for Mac OS X.

IT administrators can download a group policies template from the
Microsoft site to return formats from the dead, but individual users
or smaller shops must instead edit the Windows registry, a daunting
task that even Microsoft warns against. “Serious problems might occur
if you modify the registry incorrectly,” the company said in the
support document. “Modify the registry at your own risk.”

In a posting to a company blog yesterday, Tapara recommended that
rather than monkey with the registry, users convert documents in bulk
to the OpenXML format — Office 2007’s default format — using the
tools in the Office Migration Planning Manager (OMPM) kit, which can
be downloaded from Microsoft’s site. “OMPM is great because it doesn’t
overwrite the original files at all, it simply makes a copy of the
file in the new file format so there is no risk,” said Tapara.

Microsoft has touted Office 2007 and its OpenXML file format as more
secure for months. And in May, the company unveiled Microsoft Office
Isolated Conversion Environment, a tool for Office 2003 users that
does a double file conversion on the fly to sanitize older formats by
temporarily transforming them into OpenXML.

About Faisal Ebrahim