"I can't open the document you sent me!"

This has been a frequent complaint by users of Microsoft Office 2003 and earlier word processing software since Microsoft launched Office 2007, and introduced the .docx format. "At the beginning of every semester, we hire new interns who are college students," says Matt Brownell, editor at the Ictus Initiative, a marketing and public relations company that deals mostly with speakers, authors, and consultants, and uses Microsoft Office 2003. "They tend to have new laptops and they have the latest version of Office, and they send us résumés we can't open."

Though Microsoft offers a free conversion program that users can download from its website, like many Office 2003 users, Brownell and his colleagues weren't eager to use this solution. Instead, prospective interns were told to resubmit their résumés as .doc files. But Ictus had fewer choices when clients sent .docx files. And, Brownell discovered, the problem wasn't limited to Microsoft Word. There were new .pptx files for PowerPoint and .xlsx files for Excel as well. "The other day, I assigned a project to an intern to have her produce a spreadsheet," Brownell says. "It came as an .xlsx file. At that point, I finally gave in and downloaded the converter, but I wasn't happy about it."

"I upgraded to Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac in 2008," says Kimberly Hathaway, managing partner at Hathaway PR. "But what was this 'X' stuff? It was almost as if we shouldn't have bothered upgrading." Most high-tech clients have Office 2007, she notes -- but they make up only about 10 percent of her business. "For the rest, you really don't know who has the new Office and who doesn't," she says. "We do a lot of work with smaller regional publications, and they don't have the newest version of Office." One client, an attorney, is using an older version of WordPerfect, presenting another set of problems.

"I don't want my agency to appear antiquated," Hathaway says. To her mind, sending .doc files to Office 2007 users risks sending that message. "If I see someone is using .docx, then I send a .docx file." When in doubt, she sends a .doc file to avoid embarrassing anyone using the older version of Word. To make sure to always have files in the needed formats, the policy for her company is to save every document in three formats: .doc, .docx, and .pdf.

"From one to three times a week, we have an issue when someone forgets and sends a .docx file, and we have to resend something in the older format," she says. "It's frustrating how much time and energy is spent on the stupid formatting."

Why Microsoft added the x

To users like Hathaway and Brownell, the new format seems intended to cause irritation and force users to upgrade sooner to the newest software. "I think there was initial disbelief among users that it wasn't at all backwards-compatible with the old version," Brownell says. "We assumed it was a problem that would be fixed. If it was possible to create this new format, why couldn't they make it backwards-compatible?"

But creating a backwards compatible format might have been impossible, since with .docx, pptx, and .xlsx, the company was making a fundamental change in the way its files are created. The new file formats are based on Extensible Markup Language or XML, a widely recognized document standard.

In fact, the move to .docx, .pptx, and .xlsx are part of a move to a more open standard of file formatting for Microsoft, allowing developers to more easily create applications that can access data within Word documents (for transfer to a webpage, for instance), and also to make it easier for other word processing software to open Word documents. Some claim that Microsoft made the move to compete with Open Document Format (.odf) files, an open source format that is popular, especially outside the United States. "Our software supports both .odf and .docx, and also .pdf files," responds Gray Knowlton, group product manager of Office for developers at Microsoft. "The move we've made is to be more open and more transparent."

And XML-based files have other advantages he says. For one thing, they are more compressed than .doc files. "A Word document using the .docx format could be half or three quarters the size it would be as a .doc file," he says. "That saves on hard drive space and bandwidth. Also, if you tried to open a corrupted file in a .doc format, Word simply couldn't open it. A lot of data was lost that way. When you open a .docx file that's corrupted, it will still open and you can see and use all the parts that aren't corrupted."

Dan Gookin, author of Microsoft Word for Dummies (which comes in both 2003 and 2007 versions) agrees that, though it frustrates many users, the new format brings worthwhile benefits. "You can't stick with old file formats forever," he says. And, he adds, "Because it's so flexible and upgradeable, I think they will stick with the .docx format for a long time to come."

Coping with .doc and .docx

If .docx is here to stay, but most users still have Word 2003, what's the best way to manage file format conflicts? Here are some strategies that may help, depending upon what version of Word you are using.

If you use Word 2003:

• Download the converter. The simplest way to cope with .docx and other XML-based files is to download Microsoft's free converter. Once it's installed, Office 2003 will open .doc, .xlsx, and .pptx files, with a few seconds' pause for conversion.
• Use Google Documents. Google Documents will open a .docx file through its online interface. It's free, though you have to create a Google account.
• Try Open Office. The current version of Open Office can open .docx files, and it's free.
• Hold off on buying Office 2007. With the release of Office 2010 scheduled for this summer, investing in Office 2007 makes little sense at this point. On the other hand, if you're curious, you can download a free beta version of Office 2010 to play with. 

If you use Word 2007:

• Set .doc as your default format. "The newer format is valuable, and I think everyone should switch to it eventually," Gookin says. "But for now, you should configure Office 2007 to save files in .doc format by default. People with the newer version of Word can open the older format—and may not even notice the difference."