/ essay / noword

If you are reading this, you are interested in my answers to the following question:

Why I cannot accept Microsoft Word files

There are so many answers to this question that I do not feel hesitant to bluntly refuse Word documents: I am really sorry to bother you with all this, but I must be firm here. If you sent me any information of importance, please resend it in a more suitable format. I would recommend using the HTML export option that is available in Word, but only if you know what you are doing and really need it.

Thank you for making the Internet a better place.
Rick van Rein.

Word documents pose a security hazard

Lack of security is my strongest problem with Word documents. With lack of security, I mean the ability for programs to sneak into my (professional) account as a side-effect of receiving emails. Possibilities for this sneaking-up in a receiving system are known as security holes. A program that exploits secutiry holes to multiply itself and devastate a system's functioning is commonly known as a virus.

Microsoft's aim with their operating systems and other toys has traditionally been the home market, where people run a stand-alone system. This means that security is not an issue, but a smooth look with animations and sounds is. Now that Microsoft products are attached to the rest of the world through the Internet, we need to be cautious about their opennes to virusses; we have already seen a few examples where this went wrong (Melissa and her sisters) and cost dearly to large organisations.

The security hole in Word is rather obvious. Word allows anybody to define macro's, and these macros may directly access the underlying operating system. This makes it possible for a macro to do such things as fomatting a hard disk or reading your address book for email. When a word document is saved, the macros can be saved along with it, and when such a document is sent along the wires of the Internet, the macros get spread. You don't need to be Einstein to exploit this `feature' in virusses.

Please note, that you are not necessarily aware of any virusses that you may spread. A smart designer of a virus will make the virus keep silent over a long time, doing nothing more than nest itself in any document it sees, and come to action only on set times, for example on a Friday the 13th. As you may understand, your Word documents may contain virusses you received from a third party.

You may understand that I wish to play no part in such propagation processes. Since the problem is inherent in correctly interpreting a Word document, the problem is specific to Word (and similar Microsoft products). As a result, I feel reluctant to accept Word documents sent to me over email. Alternatives I could suggest include almost every file format not devised by Microsoft.

As a side note, Microsoft's mail client, Outlook, suffers from similar problems (note: since writing this, the I LOVE YOU virus sadly proved me right on this one). But these problems can be circumvented by selecting a normal mail client such as Netscape, pine or mutt. If your mail client supports JavaScript, be sure to switch it off for email, so that reception of email cannot cause arbitrary activities executed on your system.

This advice is probably only of interest if you store valuable information on your Windows system; which is not a smart move anyway, due to lack of stability and security.

Word documents are too large

Practice shows that we don't throw away our email after they're expired. Instead, we keep it around far too long in mail boxes with far too many emails to maintain well. If we allow our emails to be larger than they need to be, we fill up quite a lot of hard disk space for nothing. Furthermore, the processing of those mail boxes is slowed down severely when the emails are large.

The problem with Word documents is, that they are sent with previous versions included, which is undesirable for email. Furthermore, the documents contain a lot of layout and other setup codes that are unnecessarily specific for email traffic. This makes Word documents excessively large.

You may understand that I do not like such large emails. I think that plain text does quite well for small messages, and HTML provides a suitable mechanism for (logically) layed out text; if nothing else works, you could choose to send rich text format, RTF. If you really think your physical layout matters, you should send portable document format, PDF, or PostScript, but these files are all quite large too and should therefore not be the default of what you send out. You can make PDF from word with PDFmaker.EXE.

Word documents are non-standard

Microsoft keeps the secrets of the Word document format to themselves [unless they recently changed this habbit]. This makes the documents unsuitable for treatment as a standard, even as an industry standard, because no alternative implementations are possible.

The Internet is a proud institute of communicating standards; it is often hard to determine the kind of platform one is communicating with. This makes it possible for everyone to pick and choose implementations they like.

Between Windows machines, problems may occur if different Word versions are used. Usually, newer Word documents are not recognised as such by older Word implementations. So, upon reception of a newer Word document, one is forced to install a new Word version. A file format which is incompatible even between versions is not a good standard!

In my opinion, there is no place on the Internet for non-standards such as Word. This is another reason to dislike Word documents sent around. More practically, lacking any Microsoft programs on any of the machines I use, I am not able to read Word documents except when I use a somewhat crappy translation-hack.

Word documents are often sent ignoring useful standards

Email is a well-documented Internet standard (formally, it's an RFC) and so is mime, an extension to describe the kinds of attachments made to a document. These standards are in common use and should be adhered to for all emails.

The most useful thing about mime extensions is that they explain the actual intention (or semantics) of a document, making it unnecessary to rely on educated guesses (or syntactical observations) such as file names.

Instead of exploiting the semantical information contained in mime-types, Windows platforms (or mailers? unsure) seem to prefer to observe the syntactical information contained in filename extensions. This is taken far: When sending emails with a Microsoft-product (names?), the mime-type seems to be set to `unknown binary blurb' or in terms of mime-types, an octet-stream. This means that all semantical information is discarded from the attached document, forcing decent platforms to lower themselves to educated guesses based on syntax. This is an intollerable outrage.

If I receive a document wrapped up like this, I will almost certainly refuse reading it.

In Conclusion

I cannot accept Word files in my (professional) computer account. It would seem to me that it is best if nobody would. A formally standardised format such as HTML is an excellent alternative.

I hope the above explains why I take the puristic approach of refusing Word documents. I will change this policy as soon as Microsoft products are evaluated as secure by some proven authority on this domain, preferrably Sun Microsystems.

Rick van Rein -- do with this what you like, but always send the link instead of a copy of the document to others.