Problems opening ‘old’ documents

Why can’t Office open docs made by Office itself?

When Microsoft was trying to gain market share over rivals like WordPerfect, they spent a lot of time and trouble making Office import other document formats easily and correctly.

Times have changed, Microsoft Office has the overwhelming share of the office application market so they don’t feel the need to spend development money on ‘foreign’ formats.

That came to a head with Office 2003 Service Pack 3 where Microsoft decided to block the ability to open some ‘legacy’ document formats including some made Microsoft itself. 

We often hear from people trying to open old Word documents which are blocked by Word 2003 SP3, because these files have .doc extensions (same as other Word documents) and the Word error message isn’t at all clear, it looks like a bug in Word.

The excuse was ‘security’ but really Microsoft decided it was cheaper for them to block access to some document types than fix the document conversion code to work safely.

After customer complaints, Microsoft released details of how you can bypass the block on certain file types here.

This might seem like a small side problem, but every week we get emails from people who have Office 2003 SP3 and later discover they can’t open some old document.  The message that appears gives no real clue to the problem or solution. Since the same documents could be opened by Office in the past, the customers are left with an unopenable document.

This and other SP3 problems are covered in our feature Traps in Office 2003 SP3.  Office 2003 SP3 is now effectively compulsory see Office 2003 support declines.

How to open old documents

How can you open documents that Microsoft Office doesn’t recognise anymore?  A lot depends on whether you need just the text or the full formatted document and, of course, what software you have available.

Ideally you can open the document using the original software and Save As to a format recognized by Office now.  For example you could use Excel 95 or Word 97 to open older Office documents.

Tip: you can install older software on the same computer as regular Office however there might be compatibility issues, especially if you try to install old software on a new operating system like Vista.  Options to keep software isolated from your main working system include dual-boot computers or virtual machines technology like Microsoft’s Virtual PC (available as a free download) or VMware Workstation.

Word 2003 and 2007 has an option ‘Recover text’ which is intended to retrieve text from corrupted documents but you could try it on unsupported document formats.  Worth a try to see if the text can be displayed.