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November 2016

Behold the DOCX File Format

Word 2007 uses an utterly new file format for its documents. The new extension is DOCX and so I call it the DOCX file format.

DOCX files are much, much smaller than older Word DOC files. (There's a reason for this you'll read about in a bit.) That's one reason I like the new format, as well as the new version of Word: it's jut more thoughtful, quick, and light. But that's not going to help you stay compatible with those folks who use other, older versions of Word.

Since Word 97, the newer versions of Word have used the same document file format (more or less). So for compatibily's sake, Word 2003, Word 2002, Word 2000, Word 97 and the various Macintosh versions of Word, have all used the same DOC file format. This meant that you could swap and share files back and forth and no one thought anything of it. It was beautiful! And there was peace in the valley and the happy farm animals were fat and carefree.

Now the first thought that may come to mind is that Microsoft decided on a new file format just to be evil. Perhaps. But I think there's far more too the DOCX file format than just creeping malevolence.

But I Want to be compatible!

Tough!

Actually, compatibility works both ways.

When you use Word 2007 and open an older Word document, it stays in that older format. This may be a source of frustration as some of Word 2007's features (instant preview, themes) won't work in that document.

You can convert the document to DOCX with the Convert command in the Office button menu. This updates the document, but it also prevents those with older versions of Word from reading it. My advice is to keep older DOC files in that format, even on your own computer.

When you have an older version of Word and must deal with newer DOCX files, don't even bother trying to open them. You can't! You can't even "recover text" from those files. Instead, I recommend you visit the Microsoft web site and download the file conversion utility:

Microsoft Office 2007 Compatibility Pack

The good news is that the utility enables older versions of Word to read and save DOCX files. The bad news is that it's a 23MB download! Egads! Also, you must ensure that your version of Word is completely upgraded with the most current security patches. But that will solve the problem of compatibility.

Secrets that Lurk in the DOCX File Format

Being the curious type, and a closet nerd, I decided to look into the DOCX file format to see what was going on. This was a few months ago when I was writing Word 2007 for Dummies, when I discovered that the DOCX files were not backward compatible with older versions of Word.

The first thing I wanted to do was search the DOCX file for any plain text. But I found none. Actually, what I found was that the DOCX file isn't really a document file at all: It's a ZIP file. An archive.

You can rename any DOCX file with the ZIP extension, then you can open the DOCX file to reveal a hoard of files and folders, all packed into one handy archive. This was clever of Microsoft: the ZIP archive is compressed, so Word documents take up less space on disk. Further, the archive is very organized and easy to understand (well, for me).

I do not recommend that you rename your Word document files to ZIP; keep the extension DOCX. But if you're curious, rename a document you don't need or some sample document just to see how they did things. It's really quite clever.