Last week I was working with a group of people on a Microsoft Word document when I noticed that the printout being used by one of the group failed to show the contents of the file's tables. It turns out she uses OpenOffice.org rather than Office, and OpenOffice.org's Writer app missed the table data.
The week before that I had to resend a spreadsheet I had e-mailed to my brother because I inadvertently saved it in Excel 2007's new .xlsx format, and he's using an older version of Office.
Some people would say these minor inconveniences are part of the price of technological innovation, but if you multiply these time-sinks a million-fold they add up to a major loss of productivity. True PC-software standards aren't likely to arrive anytime soon, so it's up to us to ensure that the files we share with others look and work the way we intend them to.
Get Microsoft's Office Compatibility Pack
The greatest challenge in switching from Office 2003 to Office 2007 isn't trying to find the ribbon equivalent of the old toolbar options, it's remembering to save files in the .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats rather than their new XML equivalents. In a way it's a shame not to be able to use the XML formats because they save storage space by allowing files to be much smaller, and they offer other advantages. But there will be people using Office 2003, Office XP, and Office 2000 for many years to come, and not all of them will bother downloading Microsoft's Office Compatibility Pack.
If you intend to share files using Office's XML formats with people who don't have Office 2007 installed on their systems, send them a link to the compatibility-pack download along with the files. Unfortunately, they'll need to visit the Microsoft Update site before they install the pack, and if that entails downloading and installing an Office or Windows update, they may need to restart their system before they can install the compatibility pack and subsequently open the file. Talk about jumping through hoops!
Roll back the file-format clock
Now you see why it's usually easier to use the older .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats. Nearly all modern PC programs accommodate these files, but that's not to say the proprietary Microsoft formats are trouble-free. Microsoft owns another "standard" for word-processing documents that is supported by all versions of Word and designed for interoperability: the Rich Text Format (.rtf). One big advantage of .rtf files is that they can be opened in OpenOffice.org's Writer word processor, as well as AbiWord, KWord, and other open-source word processors.
Unfortunately, there's no .rtf equivalent for spreadsheets. The simplest, most universal format for spreadsheet data is Comma-Separated Values (CSV), which all versions of Excel--and all other spreadsheet programs--accommodate without a problem. Excel also supports the old WK1 Lotus 1-2-3 format, which lets you perform calculations but is much simpler than Excel. Software developer Joel Spolsky offers an in-depth look at your Office-format options. Most of the information is from a programmer's perspective, but it's useful for your average, everyday user as well.
Save the file as a PDF
If the person you're sharing a file with needs only to view and perhaps comment on it rather than editing or otherwise altering it, send them a PDF version of the file. I described how to add PDF-creation capability to any PC for free in a previous post. The upcoming version 3 of OpenOffice.org is expected to allow you to import PDF files, but I haven't found a free program that lets you open and edit PDFs the way you can using Adobe's Acrobat or other commercial PDF apps.
Tomorrow: easy ways to find system information in Windows.