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Traps in Office 2003 Service Pack 3

There’s a big question mark over the third service pack for Office 2003 – should you install it or not? Microsoft has chosen to make that decision a difficult one for all Office 2003 users.

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There's a big question mark over the third service pack for Office 2003 - should you install it or not? Microsoft has chosen to make that decision a difficult one for all Office 2003 users.

There's nothing wrong with Office 2003 Service Pack 3 but you need to be very aware of the limitations imposed on SP3 users.  They aren't immediate or obvious but might strike you in the future.

SP3 is full of blatant Microsoft cost-cutting measures. Instead of making Office 2003 more secure and fully functional the company chose to block existing Office 2003 features that would have been too expensive for them to fix. It's cheaper for Microsoft to disable a feature instead of making it work properly.

Microsoft had a pile of security problems with Office 2003, the corporate answer is to disable features with security risks instead of fixing them.

So before you rush off to install SP3 you need to be aware of the changes it brings. Most of them might be considered minor but they might cause a problem if you're not aware.

Microsoft is deploying SP3 automatically via the Microsoft Update service so you might be in for an unwanted 'surprise' when using Office 2003.

The online documentation on these changes isn't clear. The main description of the reduced functionality in Service Pack 3 is buried deep in a long Knowledge Base article . Even then the descriptions are deliberately obscure. For example "You receive an error message when you try to open a file or to save a file after you install Office 2003 Service Pack 3" doesn't tell you which file types are affected and nor does the KB article with that title. You have to hunt around for yet another article that finally lists which file types are affected.

Traps in Office 2003 Service Pack 3

Here's a summary of the major changes in Service Pack 3 which may strike you at some stage. In many cases the changes won't be immediately apparent but at some time in the future you'll spend time trying to work out why something won't work.

Many file types are blocked

Many older file types that could be opened in Office 2003 and earlier versions of Office will suddenly stop opening with Office 2003 SP3. There's no warning message or explanation.

The file types blocked by Service Pack 3 include:

  • All Word documents created before (but not including) Word 6 for Windows. The includes all Word 1 and Word 2 documents, Word 4 for Mac plus early versions of Word for some Asian countries.
  • All Powerpoint files created before Powerpoint 97.
  • Excel 4 binary files in .xlc format.
  • dBase II files - the once very common .dbf format.
  • Lotus and Quattro files ".wk1, .wk4, .wj3, wk1 FMT, .wks, .wk3, wk3 FM3, .wj2, .wq1, .fm3, .wj1 "
  • Corel Draw .cdr

This was done because of the security risks in converting older file formats. Instead of dealing with those problems, Microsoft took the easy way out and just blocked access to the older formats.

While the formats might seem old and even archaic they are important when you want to retrieve old files from years past. Most people and companies don't convert all their documents to the latest format - documents are opened as needed and then re-saved to newer formats. When you go digging into your archives you might find documents you can't open with SP3. That might not happen often but could be quite confusing when you try.

Over time, Microsoft has relented a little bit and now you can download a set of registry patches to restore access to various formats.

You can reverse these SP3 changes in various ways that are detailed here.

Can't save to some formats

Linked to the restriction on File Open are new limitations on formats you can save to. SP3 imposes restrictions on saving to Powerpoint pre-97 formats, Lotus & Quattro formats, Excel 4 binary formats and .dbf formats.

Most of these aren't a real problem since there are presumably other formats you can use instead. But the .dbf format was once very commonly used and is very handy for transferring data across older systems.

You can reverse these SP3 changes in various ways that are detailed here.

No Fast Saves in Word 2003

Fast Save is a Word feature to speed up saving your Word documents. SP3 disables this feature - the check-box option is still there but the 'choice' does nothing.

Some Add-ins don't work

ActiveX controls, and COM add-ins are checked by SP3 when they load up - if SP3 believes them to be security risks they'll be disabled. That's somewhat reasonable but it means that an add-in that worked fine in Office 2003 will stop unceremoniously once you install SP3.

Office Document Imaging changes

The Document Imaging part of Office 2003 changes with SP3 - some you can change back and others you can't.

  1. The Microsoft Office Document Image Writer printer driver may be reset to the TIFF output format.
  2. .Tif files and .mdi files are no longer associated with Microsoft Office Document Imaging.
  3. Save a .tif file using JPEG compression isn't available.

Points 1 and 2 can be reversed by changing the settings to your wishes. See

Access issues:

Microsoft made two important changes to Access 2003 with Service Pack 3. It's a sign of the flawed judgement used by Microsoft that these changes were considered acceptable in a publicly released product. Service Packs are meant to fix bugs not introduce new ones.

While SP3 wasn't fixed there is now a hotfix available to reverse these 'improvements' here.

Access: Combo box and List box errors

A combo or list box populated with a SQL statement can return no values. You can workaround these problems as described here or apply the hotfix mentioned above.

Access: Bit data columns in SQL tables

Access 2003 SP3 dropped support for bit data columns ( 0 or 1 ) in Access projects linked to a table on Microsoft's own SQL Server.

Article posted: Monday, 22 October 2007

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