Microsoft Word, one of the worst pieces of software ever to enter widespread use, has been a thorn in my side for years. As a writer, it offends my aesthetics. As a techie, it offends my sense of good design. And when it comes to digital security, it just plain offends. There are plenty of other tirades against Word on the Web (such as this, this, and this), and reams of information showing how this application seriously hinders regulatory compliance and technical development for all sorts of organizations. When Microsoft finally lost the ISO standards war on this issue, many people hoped that Word’s corrosive influence on the world would soon come to an end.
No such luck.
With the release of Vista and the newest version of Office, the demons of Redmond have unleashed another round of document exchange agony. It’s called .docx. The .docx format was Microsoft’s bludgeon in the ISO standards war they just lost (the free, powerful, open source alternative Open Office won). Besides being a dead-end standard now, .docx suffers from a couple of other fatal flaws. First, it’s completely incompatible with prior versions of Word, so if you use the new Word and send a file to someone using the 2004 version, they can’t open it. Second, there’s no Word version for the Mac that will open these files, so Mac users are out of luck. There are some kludges for both of these problems, but they suck. For one thing, none of them preserve the advanced features of the original .docx file – they usually produce RTF documents, so things like “Track Changes” will be stripped out.
What’s the impact? Well, to cite two recent examples, a couple of weeks ago I spent the majority of a day emailing different files back and forth with one editor, just to settle on a format that would work on both of our systems. And yesterday, someone actually resorted to printing and faxing a Word document to me, with changes penciled into the margins. Weren’t we supposed to be beyond this in 2007?
Worse than inconvenience, there’s the security problem. The latest example, reported today in Salon, is this story, about how an 8-year-old extracted classified information from US military documents posted in Word format. All the cutting, pasting, and editing that was supposed to be redacted from the public version of the document was in fact preserved in the file’s “Track Changes” buffer, ready for anyone to uncover with a few mouse clicks. Even if you don’t work with classified military intelligence reports, consider the types of information you handle. I work with embargoed press releases, pre-publication scientific papers, off-the-record comments, and sometimes corporate proprietary data that should never see the light of day. How liable would I be if I emailed an editor an unsecure attachment with that information hidden in plain sight? How liable would they be for insisting on using “Track Changes”? And will anyone ever hold Microsoft accountable for this mess?