Almost two years after its release, Microsoft Office 2007 enjoys healthy—but far from global—adoption. New file formats give rise to compatibility concerns for users who need to share documents within and between organizations. The integration of Office 2007 applications with SharePoint makes it difficult for organizations to decide which technology to introduce first. And of course, Office 2007’s radically revised UI—technically called the Office Fluent User Interface but more commonly called the ribbon—necessitates an end-user-training-and-communication effort that stymies some enterprises.

As you plan for a migration to Office 2007, you need to heed several key considerations. Every enterprise is unique, and it’s important that you spend time evaluating all of Office 2007’s nuances in light of your organizational requirements. The Microsoft resource that best complements this article is the Planning and Architecture section of the 2007 Office Resource Kit. You can download much of its content as a single-file Microsoft Word document called the Migration Guide for easier offline reading. In this article, I refer to this document a few times, and I also highlight concerns that my clients face in their real-world migrations.

Open XML File Formats

Without doubt, the move away from proprietary, binary file formats to formats that use XML was a critical strategic decision for the Office 2007 developers. Microsoft Office Word 2007, Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007, and Microsoft Office Excel 2007 use the new Open XML formats, which are compact, robust, and enable easier integration with back-end systems.

You’ll certainly have noticed the new filename extensions that represent the new file formats (e.g., .xlsx for Excel Workbook, .docx for Word documents, .dotx for Word templates, .pptx for PowerPoint presentations, .potx for PowerPoint templates).

There are many other file types as well, including macro-enabled file types (which replace the “x” with an “m” in file extension such as .xlsm, .docm, .dotm, .pptm, .potm). In Office 2007, Microsoft has split its document formats into types that support Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) code and types that don't. The standard formats no longer support VBA, a move that makes document sharing easier because you needn't be concerned about malware embedded in Office 2007 documents. Only the macro-enabled formats support VBA code. The new filename extensions should make it easier for you to identify the versions and types of Office documents as your organization migrates from binary to XML formats.

Open XML files are essentially compressed .zip files, inside of which are .xml files that describe the content and formatting of the document, along with assets such as images that are embedded in the document.

If you’ve not yet experimented with Open XML formats, create a Word document that includes an inserted picture. Save the file as a Word document (.docx), then rename the extension from .docx to .zip. Open the file and examine its contents. Figure 1 shows a portion of the Word document that generated this article—the document.xml file contains the text you are reading right now.

The compressed nature of the Open XML formats will significantly reduce the size of most Office 2007 documents. A typical 100KB Word 2003 document will be reduced to 25KB when you save it as a .docx file. Additionally, documents are more robust and less prone to corruption because assets such as images are stored separately from content and formatting. You should no longer see those Word documents or PowerPoint presentations with giant red Xs where pictures should be.

The Open XML formats' reliance on XML simplifies the development of custom solutions that generate or integrate with Office 2007 documents. And speaking of standards, Microsoft worked very hard in 2007 and early 2008 to secure the adoption of Open XML as an ISO, which reduces Office 2007’s vulnerability to “anything-but-Microsoft” attacks by its competitors and adds validation to Microsoft’s broader efforts to open its platform to third-party extension.

Backward Compatibility

Like previous Office releases, Office 2007 supports opening and saving files in earlier binary file formats. From the Open command, you can see both XML and binary document types. Using the Save As command, you can save documents to either format with the Save As Type option. This open and save compatibility makes it easier for users and applications to interoperate and collaborate. For example, an Excel 2007 user can create and save a workbook that can be opened by a colleague running Excel 2003, 2002, and 2000. You might lose certain formatting and functionality by saving to a binary format, however; I’ll discuss feature compatibility later in this article.

Office 2007 does drop support for certain file formats that are seldom used today. For example, Excel 2007 can no longer open or save workbooks based on the dBase II (DBF) format. It scares (and ages) me that I know and have used that application! The Migration Guide has a comprehensive list of file types that Microsoft has dropped.

Forward Compatibility

Unlike previous Office releases, Microsoft went to great lengths to ease the market’s migration to the new file formats by building a forward-compatibility solution. You can install the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats on computers running Office 2003, XP, and 2000, letting users open and save the new XML formats. After you install the Compatibility Pack, users will see the new formats listed as options in the Save As dialog box. I have to commend Microsoft for doing what so few vendors ever do: revising previous versions of a product to work with the new version.

Feature Compatibility

Whether you’re saving an Office 2007 document as a binary file compatible with earlier Office versions or using the Compatibility Pack to open an Office 2007 document in a previous Office release, there are unique Office 2007 features that Office 2007, 2003, and 2000 simply don’t support. For example, Excel 2007 provides new data visualizations. You can create data bars and indicators that apply colors and other formats to cells so that it’s easier to visually interpret data. Excel 2003 and earlier don’t support these formats.

Many such features will be visible when you use previous Office versions to open Office 2007 documents, but you can’t use them. And most of the features will survive “round-tripping” the document, which means you can use an Office 2007 feature, save the document, open the document in a previous version of Office, save the document, and open the document again in Office 2007 with full feature fidelity. Round-tripping applies whether you save the document in Office 2007 as a binary format or save the file as an XML file and open it in an earlier Office version with the Compatibility Pack installed. The specific handling of each of the new Office 2007 features by earlier Office versions varies with each feature. The Migration Guide details all of them.

Compatibility Mode

Compatibility mode is enforced when you open a file from a previous version of Excel, PowerPoint, and Word, in the 2007 version of that application. Compatibility mode disables and modifies features that aren’t available in previous versions, ensuring that content created in the Office 2007 application can be saved to the previous file format without data or feature loss, and can be fully edited by the previous version of the application.

For example, if compatibility mode is enabled in Word 2007, the Insert SmartArt command invokes the Office 2003 version of the SmartArt diagramming tool so that the resulting object can be edited in Word 2003. Office 2007 adds the label \[Compatibility Mode\] to the title bar, and certain features are disabled. Compatibility mode is document-specific, so you can be working with one document saved in compatibility mode and another in the fully functional Office 2007 format at the same time.

Word 2007 and PowerPoint 2007 can enable compatibility mode manually, by saving a document as a previous version. In Excel 2007, you must save the document as an .xls file, then close and reopen the document to enter compatibility mode. To convert a previous file format to the Office 2007 format, choose the Convert command from the Office button menu. Doing so saves the document in Open XML format, disables compatibility mode, and makes all features available.

Compatibility Checker

Excel 2007, PowerPoint 2007, and Word 2007, include a compatibility checker that detects features that are different from, or not supported by, previous versions. The compatibility checker produces a dialog box that lists a document’s compatibility problems. It separates minor concerns (e.g., changes in visual appearance) from major concerns that can result in data loss or degradation. The dialog box also provides links to help you identify the source of the problem and information about how to solve the problem. Figure 2 shows the report of the compatibility checker for an Excel workbook that uses new data visualizations and contains data in the new, extended grid, which supports more rows and columns than in previous Excel versions.

The compatibility checker appears when you save a document in a binary format or switch into compatibility mode, although it won’t appear if Office 2007 detects no compatibility problems. You can also launch the compatibility checker manually from the Prepare option in the Office button menu.

Managing Compatibility

You must plan to manage compatibility and interoperability during your Office 2007 migration. Not only must you worry about users within your organization running different versions of Office, you must also consider documents sent between your users and their clients, vendors, and partners. Because Office 2007 can open and save documents in binary formats, you can use those formats in situations in which users might be running Office 2003 or earlier. However, by saving documents in an earlier format, you go into compatibility mode, thus losing the ability to fully use some of Office 2007’s new features. You must balance compatibility with feature utilization, and you must consider the users in your organization and in your external collaborators' organizations as you do so.

As your users migrate to Office 2007, you can train them to save documents in binary format when necessary, but you can also use a Group Policy setting to configure the default format for saved documents as binary. To use Group Policy to configure the default file format, download the administrative templates. Add the templates to the Group Policy Management Editor by right-clicking Administrative Templates (or Classic Administrative Templates, depending on the version of the editor you’re using) under User Configuration. The Office 2007 policy setting folders will appear. Under the folder for the application (e.g., Excel 2007), click Options (e.g., Excel Options), then click Save. In the details pane, right-click Save (application) files as and select Properties. In the Save files in this format section, select Enabled, then select the default file format from the drop-down list. For more details about Group Policy templates and settings for Office 2007, see "Managing Microsoft Office 2007 with Group Policy," February 2008, InstantDoc ID 97829.

Many organizations configure the default format as the binary format during migration to ensure maximum compatibility. After migration, the Group Policy setting is changed to the native Office 2007 format.

Converting Existing Documents

If you want to convert documents en masse to an Open XML format, use the Office File Converter (ofc.exe) included in the Microsoft Office Migration Planning Manager (OMPM). You can configure the exact functionality of ofc.exe with ofc.ini, a simple text file containing parameters that determine which files and folders are converted, where logs are stored, and other conversion settings. The OMPM documentation details each setting.

But is it worthwhile to convert existing documents? In most scenarios, you don’t gain an immediate benefit from conversion; however, note that an Excel workbook saved in binary format can't update linked data from an Excel workbook saved in Open XML format. Therefore, you should convert all linked workbooks as a batch, and if there are many such workbooks, it might be worth your time to master the Office File Converter.

Microsoft provides no tool to convert Outlook .pst and .ost files from the format that Outlook 2002 and earlier uses to the Unicode format that Outlook 2007 and 2003 use. The steps to convert data files are provided in "Convert a non-Unicode data file (.pst) to a Unicode data file (.pst)."

Evaluate Your Migration Readiness

After you read this article, download and skim through the migration guide. Pay particular attention to the list of new and deprecated features. Unfortunately, because Office 2007 introduces numerous small changes, there’s no single answer for all enterprises to the question, “Am I ready to migrate?” You must decide in light of your enterprise workflows and requirements.

Identify new features that will address known problems in your enterprise. For example, Excel 2007’s new grid size, which supports 16,000 columns and a million rows, might let your users consolidate data that had to be stored in multiple worksheets or in other data sources. Determine when those new features should be introduced to users and whether they are supported in compatibility mode, and decide whether you’ll enforce compatibility mode during migration, considering that doing so might delay users’ ability to leverage the new features.

In the list of deprecated features, focus on the features that your users rely on for their work. If an important feature is changed by Office 2007, identify how to support users so that they can continue working. Often, you simply need to train users for new best practices. Sometimes, you can implement a back-end workaround. Occasionally, however, a deprecated feature might delay your migration.

Also, take note of the details provided by the OMPM about each application and its compatibility between versions, based on your users’ work. Doing so will help you decide when to migrate various groups. For example, Excel 2007 adds significant improvements to PivotTables when files are saved in OpenXML format. If multiple users collaborate on sheets that use PivotTables, you should migrate those users and their documents simultaneously.

The OMPM also provides the OMPM File Scanner. The OMPM file scanner scans Office 2007 files and reports on their location, quantity, and potential compatibility concerns. The results are compiled in a database that you can use to identify problems that could hinder your Office 2007migration. However, implementing the OMPM requires a bit of effort and might be overkill in many enterprise migrations.

Training and Communication

Training and communication are paramount to the success of your migration. Both end users and IT staff must be thoroughly prepared and motivated for the changes to both the UI and Office 2007’s support requirements. Highlight those Office 2007 features that solve known “pain points” for your users. Users who rely on Outlook will be thrilled by some of Outlook 2007’s new information-management features, including the new color categories and the universal to-do list that incorporates tasks from every folder and flagged email messages. Instant search is also a tremendous time-saver for Outlook users. A look at your Help desk logs or a survey of your power users will bring your users’ pain points to light. When you can demonstrate the benefits that Office 2007 offers, the transition becomes exciting.

Provide your users a short, effective training session that covers both the use and the customization of the ribbon. Demonstrate how to add frequently used commands to the Quick Access toolbar—most users will want to add a print command, for example. And show users how to minimize the ribbon to increase on-screen real estate. Also, be sure to train users how to save files in different formats.

Finally, take advantage of the transition to teach users best practices for working in Office 2007 applications. Most users continue to work with outdated practices and shortcuts learned from previous “generations” of users and software. It’s rare that an organization has the opportunity to retrain users for better, more productive work. Because the new Office 2007 UI is so radically different, you’ll have users’ attention. Grab this chance to improve their productivity.

The Microsoft Office Online website has numerous training resources, including short videos and cheat sheets. You can also get assistance from companies that specialize in end-user productivity, such as Intelliem.

Don’t Forget SharePoint

It’s hard to forget SharePoint these days; it plays a pivotal role in the collaboration story for Office users now and into the foreseeable future. As you migrate to Office 2007, locate the low-hanging fruit—that is, the collaboration scenarios that you can immediately move to SharePoint. For example, shared tasks, calendars, contacts, and simple shared databases can be migrated to SharePoint lists. Workflows that involve significant document revision can be moved into SharePoint-supporting document libraries for check-out and version history. You probably won’t want to tackle everything at once, so don’t let your Office 2007 application migration balloon into a gigantic SharePoint implementation, but there are likely to be some places where you can add value and introduce SharePoint to users as a natural companion to the Office applications with which they’re already familiar.

Provide an Office 2003 Option

If you assume that you’ll be able to migrate every user, every document, and every workflow to Office 2007, you're likely to discover an exception—and that exception will cause immense headaches. Therefore, I recommend that you prepare some kind of back door for situations that require Office 2003. Office 2007 and Office 2003 can live side by side on a system, except that you can use only one version of Outlook. So, you might deploy Office 2007 and Outlook 2007 but configure the installation to leave previous versions on the system. Or, you might provide Office 2003 on a terminal server.

The Bottom Line

You must consider this article’s file-format, compatibility, and collaboration concerns prior to walking the migration path to Office 2007. You should also spend time glancing through the voluminous details in the OMPM. In a large or complex enterprise, it might be worth implementing the OMPM file scanner and the Office File Converter as part of the migration. However, my experience is that most organizations can migrate most or all of their users with few to no technical hurdles. So, you can expect the migration to be smooth for most of your users. But be prepared by understanding your environment and the changes to Office 2007, and by providing an option for the few surprises that require Office 2003 as a temporary fix. Over time, you’ll be able to reduce and eliminate all requirements for Office 2003.

You must understand, anticipate, and address the technical challenges. The larger challenges will be the cultural shift to the new UI and the integration of Office with SharePoint. Don’t underestimate the training and communication effort in your migration plans. It’s not the file format or the applications that will determine your success or failure—it’s users’ adoption of the new paradigm of individual and collaborative work in Office 2007.