Squeak and Blat: The X File Caper and Microsoft Office
Q: Dear Blat: People keep sending me files I cannot open. I am especially bugged by the latest .docx files that seem to be created with a new version of Microsoft Word which I have no intention of buying. Short of asking my friends to resend the files, how can I deal with this annoyance? And why did this happen in the first place? What are .docx files anyway? -X Begone!
A: Dear X: The cynics amongst us would say that the Microsoft Word .docx format, and the other "x" formats for PowerPoint (,pptx) and Excel (.xlsx), represent a plot by the great Redmond, Washington, company to get us to buy a new version of the Office Suite! Well, not really. The "x" designation is indicating a file format based on something called the Open XML standard which has some benefits over the older file formats. In our May 2009 column Squeak did a great job in telling us more about the XML standard as it relates to music notation. If you are hungry to know more about this emerging standard, check out: http://www.w3.org/XML/ or the extensive article in Wikipedia on the subject!
So why do you care about XML? Basically (1) file sizes can be smaller, (2) files are more easily recovered if damaged, and (3) it is possible to have the files protect your personal information better. Files can be more easily integrated together across applications as well. So our first suggestion is that you indeed upgrade your Microsoft Office application and be done with it. You might also enjoy the new version and the features that are offered in both the Windows and Mac versions.
But if you do not want to do this, there are ways to deal with this issue. If you are Windows user and have older versions of Microsoft Office, Microsoft offers service packs that allow for reading the new formats. If you are a Macintosh user, another way to read these files is to use Apple's Pages software to read the new word processing files or Numbers to read the new Excel files. You can work on these files in Pages and Numbers and export the results back to the older Word or Excel formats.
If you just want to translate the files into versions that you can read apart from the above solutions, go online, use your favorite search engine software such as Google or Yahoo, and look for the many free conversion options that are out there. There are many converter programs that you can download for free and you might also find websites that offer free conversions for you as well.
Eventually we will all probably gravitate to these formats for our work.
By the way, if you want to look for free alternatives to commercial office productivity software, look at Open Office (http://www.openoffice.org/) and Google Docs (http://docs.google.com). These alternatives also embrace the XML standard.
Come to the Pre-Conference session at CMS in October of this year to learn more about this!
Hope this helps, X!
Peter R. Webster (a.k.a “Blat”) and David Brian Williams (a.k.a. “Squeak”) have presented workshops and other presentations together for CMS/ATMI conferences and workshops for more than 20 years. Their collaboration has led to publications and presentations internationally on music technology as well as the co-authorship of the textbook Experiencing Music Technology (Cengage Learning/Schirmer Books, 3rd edition Update, 2009), a widely adopted and highly acclaimed music technology textbook for high school and college students. Dr. Webster is emeritus professor of music education at Northwestern University and Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Southern California; Dr. Williams is emeritus professor of music and arts technology at Illinois State University, a freelance consultant, composer and musician, and immediate past president of The College Music Society.