Office 2003 update quietly zaps older file formats

A recently released service pack for Microsoft Office 2003 software suite renders inaccessible files saved in some older formats, including some previous versions of Microsoft Word, according to a support bulletin issued by the software maker.

The bulletin states that Microsoft Office 2003, Service Pack 3, blocks a number of file formats -- including Microsoft Word 97 for Windows and Microsoft Word 98 for Macintosh.

Also blocked are file formats found in some older versions of Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, Lotus Notes, and Corel's Quattro spreadsheet and Draw programs.

While some of the updates that Microsoft issues may seem minor, unanticipated system changes can wreak havoc with complex business computing environments. A modification to one program can cascade through numerous other software components.

The support bulletin, published last month, indicates that the auto-blocking of older file formats is being done for security reasons and warns users that attempts to restore the old files "may increase your security risk."

Microsoft, however, does provide a detailed workaround for those who want to defeat Service Pack 3 for Word 2003's auto-blocking. But the workaround calls for users to modify their computers' registry settings -- a risky procedure that can render a PC unusable if not done correctly.

Some angry Office 2003 users report the service pack fails to warn that its installation could prevent access to the older files, according to blog posts on the issue.

Posters on the Slashdot technology blog, which first reported the problem, on Wednesday slammed Microsoft for releasing software that makes major system changes without warning users.

"I'm guessing it's about 'nudging' the few people still using old versions of the software to upgrade," wrote "Lucky Luke 58."

"You paid cash money for something to work a certain way, and it did, until your proprietary-vendor overlord makes up some crappy reason for removing the functionality," complained "Smitty One Each."

It's not the first time Microsoft has incurred the wrath of its more technically astute customers after making changes to their systems surreptitiously.

As recently as October, the company was forced to issue an apology after business users noticed that the Windows Server Update Services program was automatically installing a new search tool on PCs running the Windows XP operating system.

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