The file formats in the next version of Microsoft's Office suite will not be compatible with previous versions, posing potential problems for users planning phased migrations to Office 97.
Microsoft said the file format changes in Office 97 were necessary because of the new features and functionality in the release, scheduled to ship next January.
However, the company was quick to dispel any user concern. Although the file formats themselves are different, "we do guarantee both backward and forward compatibility," said Oliver Roll, product manager at Microsoft UK.
"Just as people wouldn't think twice about having an environment with 386, 486 and Pentium machines, so it should be just as easy to mix versions of Office," he added.
To ease migrations, Microsoft will offer Office 97 users a free conversion utility which allows them to save files in Office 95 or earlier formats.
The exception will be Excel which, because of its architecture, will save files in a special hybrid format.
"But the really cool thing," enthused Roll, "is that for the first time systems administrators have the ability to set a default file format across an organisation." This means all users can have their documents saved automatically to a chosen default version, perhaps Office 95. When the administrator wants to upgrade, this default can be changed "at the flick of a switch" to the newer version.
Roll claimed Office 97 will be "future-proof" in that it will be able to recognise file formats to be included in future versions of the suite.
He also pointed out that existing formats are over three years old and were created at a time when Microsoft "couldn't anticipate today's demands, such as the Internet".
The changes in Office 97 accommodate new functions such as Office Art, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), and intranet features such as the creation of hyperlinks within documents.
Conspiracy theorists may view Microsoft's revision of file formats as an attempt to force corporates to migrate all their users to the newest version en masse. But Microsoft is not stupid, and knows that people are unlikely to put up with this. It is in the company's best interests to make compatibility between file formats as straightforward as possible, and it has made some efforts to do so.
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