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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