The Growing Client Software Standardization Problem

Incompatibilities abound between various file formats in the Microsoft Office suites

An interesting phenomenon is occurring at Microsoft that's perhaps best described as planned obsolescence. With the release of Windows Server 2003, the company has said outright that certain applications won't run on Windows 2003, most notably Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server, which Microsoft won't support on Windows 2003 until users upgrade it to Exchange Server 2003. Users of Microsoft SQL Server versions earlier than SQL Server 2000 will need to upgrade to a patched version of SQL Server 2000 to run the application on Windows 2003. Few applications appear on the certified list for the Windows 2003 software.

Because you're reading Windows Client UPDATE, you're no doubt wondering why I'm bringing up these server-related problems. I'm not as interested in these server-side concerns as I am in Microsoft's willingness to come forward and say, "This isn't going to work." Would that the company had been as straightforward about its client-side applications: Over the past few years I've heard stories about incompatibilities between various files formats within the Microsoft Office suites. Some of these incompatibilities are clearly documented, but others seem to happen without any acknowledgement from Microsoft.

Personally, I deal with this incompatibility problem on an almost daily basis. Using Microsoft Word to write my columns for Windows Client UPDATE is never a problem, but when I'm writing books and making use of features such as comments and revision marks, the differences between Microsoft Office XP and Office 2000 can become painfully apparent.

Because of the nature of my work, I try to stay current with the most recent versions of the software I write about. Unfortunately, using the most current software often puts me a generation or two ahead of many of the users I need to share files with. The first time I received a file back that I had created in Word 10 (Office XP's version of Word) from a publisher for whom I was writing a book, the file had been edited in Word 9 (Office 2000's version of Word), contained comments entered in Word 9, and had revisions entered in both Word 10 and Word 9. I was forced to ask the project's lead editor to redo all of the changes in one version of Word so that I could find and follow the trail of the edits in the document, which was an 80-page book chapter.

The next generation of Office, Office 11, is already getting rave reviews for its XML-based document formats. Given the way software is bundled, small business users who aren't on software licenses but who use the software that's included on new computers they buy will probably need to deal soon with three different versions of the Office suite in their computing environment. This problem has no simple solution; if your small business buys only a dozen or two computers each year, one or two at a time, you'll probably find yourself with different versions of the Office applications. Potentially, these versions can't communicate with one another completely. The only suggestion I can offer to solve the problem is to standardize on one version of Office and buy sufficient software so that all your users share key applications. This situation is a scary one, and it isn't likely to go away any time soon.

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