The Decline of .DOC

Many feathers have been ruffled regarding the State ofMassachusetts backingthe OpenDocument standard, demandingit as the primary document archival and working standard in thenear future. This is, of course, in direct opposition toMicrosoft’s plans with their OfficeXML format, a relatively open and transparent interchangeformat that they banked much of their hopes for Office12 upon. Turns out that some took issue with the fact that,while otherwise it is gratis and open, Microsoft’s licencebasically limitsGPLd applications from joining the Office XML game (not explicitly,but rather simply through an incompatibility. It isn’t as insidiousas it sounds).

While it might not seem like that big of a deal thatone relatively small state dictated such a change, these sorts ofthings are almost always contagious – it is extremelylikely that many other governments and levels of government willfollow suit. Microsoft will almost certainly have to supportOpenDocument, or will have to completely unencumber Office XML(they’re 99% there, though many say even that will be too little,too late). We’ve already seen Microsoft surprizingly includePDFoutput functionality (though that’s not enough to satisfy theState of Massachusetts), so it doesn’t seem like much of a reachfor Microsoft to capitulate and add OpenDocument functionality(it’s probably largely just a document mapping/transformation typeproblem).

Nonetheless, one comment on a message board had mereminiscing about where .DOC once was, and where it is today.The writer in question, to paraphrase, opined that one would becutting off their own nose to spite their face if they were torelinquish their ability to deal with Office files. “How wouldthey communicate with other people and organizations?” theyasked. Without the Office formats as the lingua franca, theimplication was, they would be lost in a sea of unreadablefiles!

If someone said that to me six years ago, I would have certainlyagreed: every document – from resumes to financialstatements to installation instructions to inter-organizationalcommunications – were .doc files. It was theubiquitous document format. Compare that to today: Now the vastmajority of resumes are transmitted as plain-text, html, or byusing some ardous online resume builder (which behind the scenes isbeing stored in some proprietary format, or perhaps hr-xml).Financial statements, and virtually all layout specific documentsare relayed as PDFs. Many other communications occur in rich-textor HTML email. In most of the places you would once find a .DOCfile, you now find something in its place. Of course those aredocuments meant to be consumed, and at the source Microsoft Wordmost likely played a part, but the fact remains that Word becomesirrelevant once the document is transformed into one of theseconsumable document formats. The network effect lock-in is largelya thing of the past.

If I had to pick a turning point – the moment when .doc jumpedthe shark – it would have to be the Melissa virus.Suddenly innocuous document layout files that could be easilyviewed and printed became a vector of contamination, with caveatsand disclaimers about their handling. At that time I was doingsoftware development at an engineering shop, and worked with HR invetting resumes. It was shortly thereafter that we startedinvestigating alternatives to people emailing us Word files, and wecertainly weren’t alone.

Of course Excel remains a critical document format, and if youshare numbers in the industry it’s likely that you see an .XLS filealong the way.