Document longevity

Last week on the MSBA’s SoloSmall list serve, I asked for reasons why attorneys do not yet have a paperless law office. To me, one of the most interesting reasons was based on a fear of obsolescence. In other words, will we still be able to read the PDF and word processor documents we create today in ten or twenty years?

This is a valid and important concern, and fortunately, one which the international community has been thinking about for some time. As usual, Microsoft has gone its own way, but this time, it may lose out. It is also a concern for every attorney right now, since Word 2007 has completely changed the default file format. All .doc files are now obsolete (though still readable, for some time).

There are two main file formats that matter to lawyers: PDF, or portable document format, is one. Word processor formats are the other.


PDF is an open standard originally created by Adobe in the 1990s. Although it was created by Adobe, it is an open format. That means anyone can get the document standard and create an editor, viewer, or printer. In fact, there are many on the market. Adobe Acrobat is the big name editor, but there are others like CutePDF and PDF Converter that work just as well.

PDF (like TIFF, the other big document format), is just an image with extra information. Most PDF files contain a JPG image along with extensive information about the document, such as the fonts and text within the image.

Because the PDF format is open—that is, anyone can know what it is, how to read it, etc., it is unlikely to become obsolete. Because the elements of a PDF are file types that have been—and will be—around for a long time, you should always be able to read them, and even if Adobe stops supporting PDF, other companies and other open-source projects will pick up where Adobe left off.

Openness is a major part of the key to longevity. There are still programmers working to maintain and software abandoned by its creators a decade ago. Proprietary formats, however, die with their creators.

Text files

Concerned that the majority of the world was relying on a closed file format that rose and fall with the whim of Microsoft, an international initiative, OASIS, put together a defined file format called the Open Document Format. ODF is in its early stages, but the free and open-source office suit,, maintained by Sun Microsystems (no small player in the tech industry), uses ODF as its default format. The dozens of smaller word processor projects are moving to support it, as well. ( fully supports .doc files, however, and will support .docx files in the near future). WordPerfect will apparently support ODF in its next release.

ODF is an XML file format. XML is a lot like the old “reveal codes” feature of WordPerfect, but better. Each .odt (Open Document Text) file, for example, is actually a folder containing a text file (with those codes), together with the auxiliary information, pictures, etc., it takes to create that document. Text files will never become obsolete. They have existed since the beginning of the computer in much the same form as they exist today, and will always exist in much the same format. The text file format is, in fact, hard-coded into your computer’s hardware. Even if, some day, the format falls apart, you will still be able to read the text of it, and copy and paste it into your Word 2277 document.

Microsoft created its own XML format for the new version of Office, Office OpenXML. This is not an open format. The definition of the standard is approximately 6,000 pages long. Even if it were open, nobody would be able to implement the standard. Microsoft has given everyone a license to use the standard, but no input into it. The standard will die when Microsoft releases a new version of Office, most likely.

So once again, Microsoft has refused to go with the flow. It has its reasons, but as attorneys concerned with longevity, we should serious consider whether Microsoft’s approach is the best approach. ODF will be around for a very long time. For this reason, many foreign governments have rejected Microsoft and gone with ODF and They need to know that they will be able to open their files in 100 years, not just until the next version of Office comes out. With that widespread support, ODF’s future compatibility is assured. Many big businesses are also switching. is free, and therefore a huge money saver for enterprise. It does everything Office does. It does some things better, and other things take getting used to. IBM, Sun, and Novell are all huge free and open source (FOSS) software advocates.

The point

The point is that, instead of plunking down $400 on Office 2007, consider downloading instead, and if you like it, donate to the project. As attorneys, we need our files to last for longer than five or six years. We will—hopefully—practice far longer than that. Consider switching away from Microsoft Office. Or if you stay with it, consider how you will ensure the longevity of your files. Neither .doc nor .docx seem destined to last.

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