File format compatibility issues in the era of consumerization

IT shops will need to consider the impact file format compatibility can have across different devices and applications in the era of consumerization.

A feature change in Google Docs presents a potential headache for users and IT alike. For those organizations that use Docs and Microsoft Office, the time to prepare is now.

Google Inc. this week quietly dropped support for exporting documents in older Microsoft Office formats, so users will no longer be able to save files locally if they are in the DOC, XLS or PPT file format.

In the consumerization era, where end users are working with documents across a range of computing environments and with unsupported tools, file format compatibility can become a real headache for organizations, said Matt McVey, a technology specialist at Broadleaf Services, an IT solutions provider based in Burlington, Mass.

"If an IT guy gets a file that looks like junk from a user because of file incompatibility, it doesn't matter where it was created," McVey said. "The user will expect IT to solve the problem, and that can take them off more important projects or waste lots of time trying to solve it."

The best solution for IT when it comes to file format compatibility is to make sure software is up-to-date and to limit the number of platform documents that get created within, he said.

"It's easier to stick with one application because any number of things can get screwy with exporting files," McVey said. "Using the same tool all the time won't leave you disappointed."

Unfortunately, users don't use the same tool all the time, because they want to create and edit documents on their iPad, smartphone, desktop at home or laptop at work. Also, it's not always feasible to upgrade software because of budget constraints. Others wonder if the change is even that big of a deal.

"Not to torpedo Google, but people aren't doing mortgage contracts within Docs," said Katey Wood, an information management analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, a research firm based in Milford, Mass. Enterprises have been migrating off old versions of Office as they upgrade to Windows 7. Organizations negatively impacted by the inability to export into a DOC file should be fairly small, she said.

Many employees who use Google Docs do so in an unofficial manner, said Tom Murphy, chief marketing officer at Bradford Networks, a network access control vendor based in Cambridge, Mass. The use of various document editing tools across a range of devices becomes problematic for IT because bring-your-own apps, such as Google Docs, are the logical extension of the bring-your-own-device trend, he said.

Google did not respond to comment, but in the blog post announcing the change, the company said that organizations that run Microsoft Office 97-2003 could install a free compatibility plug-in, which allows companies to open more modern file formats, such as DOCX and XLSX.

The file format compatibility problem

To some, the availability of the plug-in matters little with no guarantee that outside companies running an old version of Office will have the plug-in installed.

"It's creating friction where the lack of friction has been key," said Devin Redmond, CEO of Social iQ Networks Inc., an enterprise social infrastructure vendor based in Burlingame, Calif. "Google Docs is easy to use across mixed environments and file formats. We primarily use Macs, multiple browsers and Office. Docs just works regardless of those things. But the more Google changes those parameters, the more inefficient it becomes for us."

File compatibility issues across different platforms could become a nuisance for users, whether it's devoting unnecessary time to reformatting files for customers or spending extra time recovering corrupted files as a result of incompatibility.

That burden falls to IT if the problems become too much for the average user. "I can understand the rationale behind the move, since it's probably costly for [Google] to continue supporting older file formats, but the problem is that doesn't necessarily work in the real world for companies," Redmond said. Google's decision to not support exporting old Office file formats could hasten Social iQ's planned transition from Office to Google Docs, he said, though it remains to be seen how problematic the user-experience will be with the change.

Compatibility pack: An 'unreliable solution'

The timing of Google's announcement is curious, given that Microsoft will continue to support the old Office file formats until 2014, when it sunsets the Windows XP operating system.

Google will continue to support saving and exporting to a variety of file formats, including DOCX, ODT and RTF for documents; XLSX, ODS and CSV for spreadsheets; SVG, PNG, JPEG and PPTX for presentations; as well as PDF, TXT and HTML for all three.

Despite Google's insistence that the compatibility pack is a solution to the problem, there are still known issues with the plug-in to essential Office features. Such issues include track changes being inoperable and certain stylistic options that do not render, making it an unreliable solution to the problem, Broadleaf's McVey said.

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Are you concerned that Google Docs has eliminated some support for Microsoft Office?
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This is a necessary growing pain. If employees are bringing their own device, with their own apps and further adding in cloud-based apps in an "unofficial" capacity as the article refers to it, they have to expect some headaches. On the occasions that his happens, people skills are really what IT staff need to convince employees opening a read-only version using a compatibility application, copy pasting, and slogging through reformatting issues is better than continuing to try to keep this old file.
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I don’t really have a concern since it seems to only apply to the older file formats, which I haven’t run into in quite some time. Even so, you have to weigh the benefits of Google docs maintaining support for older file types as they continue to move forward versus the cost associated with that maintenance.
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It negatively impacts users who have not and cannot upgrade to a newer, more expensive version of Office
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it seems to be nerfing one of the easy-of-use features of googledocs
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Digital preservation issues for longer terms records retention
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you never know what format an addressee will be able to handle therefore it is smart to leave ample space for different formats. Bad move on the part of Google
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s i want a new version.......
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I use Apple Pages as my word processing software, and Pages exports documents in the .doc format, not .docx. So now I'll have to export, open Word, re-save as a .docx etc. for compatibility: a pain in the butt!
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Convenience for different customers and suppliers is the key to successful business communications. When I tell my Customers they need to adapt or we will hve communication problems, they typically do not like that tone.
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Moving to Google and this will be an issue with our migration of docs
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The old DOC format is very unreliable and it carries lots of legacy intrincacies. In fact, I think that perhaps the only application that can safely create and read DOCs is Microsoft Word itself. The same, mutatis mutandi, can be said about XLS and PPT for instance.
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It makes sense for Google to move away from legacy filetypes as its services improve. Having to maintain ancient filetypes leads to large amounts of conversion-based frustration when documents are imported from one legacy filetype and exported as another.
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my non-profit client stills runs MS Office 2003 and subscribes to Google Docs. This may cause an heavy burden until they can go Office 2007
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If Google Docs is used for collaboration purposes on documents, loosing operatability with such things as redlining posses issues. I would begin migrating away from Google Docs if this is the case.
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What about the older documents that I created 2 years ago and I want to read 2 years from now?
I guess this is Google's way of saying. We are big enough now... 2 hoots to backward compatibility.
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This is a major step backwards. Many customers/clients and home users still use Office97-2003. Accordingly, the people with the newer versions of Office still use those formats because they are the Lowest Common Denominator that works for everyone. Plugins for older versions of Office are not acceptable solutions. This is a setback for Google Docs and may be a factor in adopting Google Docs at a corporate level.
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Many users hang on to and use documents, etc from older versions. Dropping support will mean more work for them to create new documents.
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Yes, I am.
What is the idea behind Google forcing us to stop using documents in old formats??
I don't want another Microsoft. One is about enough.
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Call it incompatibility enhancement.
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Nobody keeps alway updating to ever bigger, newer Office version !
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Giving users time of have been the right thing to do. Their showing no concern for the end user, it's going to hurt them in the long run.
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Being that most things for us need to move to tablets / iPads, this move is makes little impact. Aside from that, all I've seen is a concern for moving forward with Office, if it is that concerning move to Open Office for free and easily convert what is needed.
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Don't use Office much anymore. I just need to view attached Office docs in Google which is so much faster than waiting for an MS Office product to load. Don't need to edit. Just as soon as get rid of MS Office altogether.
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The move is denying history, which tells us that we always need the ability to read our historical documents 500years old or 10 years old.
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Avoid the use of Word. Do not use Google Docs.
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Google should offer to convert old office docs to modern formats compatible with their Docs editors, when uploaded to GDrive, to smooth over the ability to share. But I'm not concerned about this.
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I often dowload MS files for lectures and perhapes that will affect this facility !
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Users have already solved this issue as people save and send those kind of docs from Office 2010 without thinking about it.
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We are considering changing to Google Apps, but, it was stated best "Google is introducing friction where no friction exists now"
Regardless of who is not 'compatible' - IT departments WILL be called upon to 'make it work'
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Google is trying to do what Microsoft has done billion years ago. Set up an Industry standard.
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We do not use Google Docs. Yet! :)
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I have clients running windows 2000. Office 2003 is a staple around the world. This will probably speed the move to LibreOffice despite it's shortcomings. Better buy your Office 2010 before the big rental switch kicks in for Office 2013.
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i'm surprised considering they bought QuickOffice... i would have thought that integration wasn't far behind and backwards compatibility would be a non-issue.
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The majority of our contacts use doc format because either they cannot/will not upgrade to more expensive versions of MS Office or they save in doc format to maintain compatibility with those people without recent versions.
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lack of support of older formats leads to the the least desireability of considering Google Docs.
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It's time to get on with life. The recent releases of Office is so much improved that, Google Docs aside, they're worth upgrading to.
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My concern has more to do with the fact that several other non-MS products support the older file format.

We use GoogleDocs a fair bit in our organization during the collaberative development of our documents, but these are often exported afterwards into other formats for different reasons.

The most reliable export format for most of these tools is the older 98-2003 Office formats.
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It seems Apple, Google, Adobe, Microsoft, etc are becoming islands unto themselves and not allowing users the benefits of the cross-platform lifestyle that they are quickly becoming accostomed to.
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The author points out, the problem here is that if you increase friction, you'll create problems for users.

This DEFINITELY increases friction (there are plenty of people that may not be able to get the documents in the new format...ineptitude, or other problems).

Bad move.
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Google is getting as bad as MS - users are losers
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Google will give way to Office 365
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I do not have time to work on determining what presentation will support which software. I have clients that have a multitude of formats and if Google limits me I will find something that works better.
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I don't use google docs
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We are a small independent school. Our IT budget is tiny. GoogleDocs, combined with our older Microsoft system, allowed us to have a great deal of flexibility without having to pay the huge costs associated with running Microsoft. But we are running XP...so the hope of operating smoothly as we prepare to upgrade to Windows 7 is diminishing...
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I have a lot of do and xls file in customer
computer.
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Like others, we run a wide combination of vintage and current flavors- most per session-engineer, producer or user background, interface and personal preference; minimal format conversion /or downtime is key to what we're doing here.
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Don't use it. Don't care
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Older documents, that I've retained for historical purposes, are going to be a problem.
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This change implies that only newer documents are worth reading. Come again?!
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It will be headache to MS Word users.
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I only use GoogleDocs for personal docs, not for my office docs. Likewise people in my office do not use GoogleDocs for office docs.
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I am using Office 2003 with full satisfaction and do not tend to chase the latest NEW!!! s on the software market.
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just another reason not to use Google Docs
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Should not drop the old versions/
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A useful interface with older systems and leagcy documents.
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I'm using Office 2010 so does not affect
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In our company we use Office 2010, so the compatibiliti is OK for us.
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We still have over 250 users on Office 2000/2003!
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I deal with a variety of technical and non-technical people as colleagues and customers. Legacy formats are always an issue, and this only exacerbates things.
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It's time for Microsoft to drop old formats
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Not everyone have the budget to move to a newer supported platform.
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Still use old versions in organisation
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They are leaving a goodly portion of the real world behind and alienating many potential Users that might otherwise become long-time Users.
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While the later MS Office formats (.nnnx) are where we are going, MANY locations persist in the .doc/etc format for cross-application compatibility. This is going to discourage one of the big reasons some adopted Google Docs.
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LEt me explain for Google Doucments
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In the education world we don't have the money to always update everyone throughout 40-125 schools at once to the newest and greatest in applications. If we did, we wouldn't be able to take attendance, teachers wouldn't be able to teach with the software and hardware required by the state, and IT department couldn't make the change over night. Remember Google is not by itself in this world and all you are doing is forcing to go elsewhere!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Our government organization will probably only upgrade from Office 2003 when the software stops working.
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At some stage everybody has to keep up, it's the way that software companies make their money that said, DOC maybe old but it's well supported across different platforms however archived documents still have to be read and written to and really there is no advantage to using a new format for these type of documents. Good case for ODF at least there is the feeling that twenty years on it's a format that will still be here.
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