Unlocking Your Data

by Helen Bradley

How to open a file when you don't have the small business software that created it.

It is frustrating when you don't have the right application to open a file with. When someone sends you a PowerPoint or Publisher file and you don't own the program, you will find it difficult to open the file unless you know some of the small business technology tricks of the trade.

In this column, I'll show you tried and true ways to get access to just about any document regardless of the software you have on hand.

Try the easy solution first

Before you get started searching around for a solution for opening a file that you don't have the corresponding small business software application for, see if what you do have on hand will work. This is the "try like with like" solution - typically most word processors can read and display another word processor's document format and spreadsheets can understand each other and so on.

So, when you're stuck with a file for which you don't have a matching application, try the corresponding application you do have.

Can't see the file?

To get access to, say, a document created in a word processor you don't own, start by opening your word processor and choose File > Open. Your program will probably filter the files you see in its open dialog so you see only its own files. Look for a button or option to choose to see other formats and select the one that matches the extension of the file you have.

For example, if you open Microsoft Word's file list you'll see that it can read Works, WordPerfect, Open Document and a range of other file types. Select your file type, select your file and click Open. Most programs work in a similar way to this.

Microsoft Word

Programs like Word can open documents created in a range of other word processing programs

New file formats

One time when you'll encounter difficulty is when a program releases a new document format such as happened with Office 2007. For some time after Office 2007 launched no other program would open the new format files.

We're now some years down the road so it is easier to open the new Office 2007/2010 formats (which include .docx, .xlsx and .pptx) in other applications.

Ask the sender

In many cases, when you receive an incompatible file you can ask the person who sent it to you to convert it to a format you can use.

For example, Office 2007 and 2010 applications can save files in a range of other formats. All the user needs do is to select File > Save As and select the older or a different format type from the dropdown list. While some of these formats may not retain all the formatting they will retain the important data, which may be all that you need. Other small business software will offer a similar Save As feature.

If you have an older version of Office, such as Office 2003, instead of asking the sender to fix the problem, you can fix it yourself. Visit this Microsoft download page and download the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint File Formats. This installs into Office 2000, XP and 2003 and allows you to open files created and saved in the more recent Office formats.

Microsoft viewers

For some of its small business software applications, Microsoft provides viewers that you can use even if you don't own the relevant program. These allow you to view the contents of the file but you won't be able to edit or save the file. There are viewers for Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint files and Access databases all available from this Microsoft software download page.

This all makes the Microsoft Publisher .pub format one of the most frustrating of all small business software technology because there is no viewer for Publisher files. Instead, you will need to try an online solution such as Zamzar (see below), or one of the free pdf converters to convert a Publisher file to a format that you can easily view - applications such as PDFOnline can do this.


The online conversion site Zamzar.com can convert to and from a range of different formats.

Why we love free web apps

If you still cannot open a file then the Web is the next place to turn to. On the web, you'll find plenty of tools for converting documents from one format to the next. One of those that I like a lot is Zamzar. Zamzar can convert from and to a range of formats including docx, xlsx and it can read Microsoft Publisher's pub files.

Visit Zamzar and click the Conversion Types link to see if your format is listed and, if so, what you can convert it to. If it can be converted return to the main page, click Browse and upload a file of up to 100 MB in size. Select the format to convert the file to, type your email address and click Convert. The converted file will be sent automatically to you.

If it is PowerPoint, Excel or Word files you need to get access to you will find that the office online apps can help a lot. For example, Google Docs can convert any of the Office formats to worksheets, presentations and documents that you can work with in Google Docs. The free Microsoft Office Web apps - which include pared down versions of Excel, Word and PowerPoint - can be found at Office.live.com. These can display and allow you to edit any of the current Microsoft Office file formats.

Microsoft Office

Google Docs can read the new Microsoft Office formats and can extract data from pdf files.

Get data from a PDF

While PDF is a great format for sharing files with others, it's also a format that tends to lock in your data, making it difficult to get it back out again. Whenever you save a file as a PDF, make sure to also save a copy in your program's own native format so that you always have that file available.

If you need to extract data from a PDF file to another application, you can try one of the online services. These include PDF to Word services available from www.pdftoword.com and www.pdftoword.net. These PDF to Word converters let you upload the file and convert online and they also have a tool you can download to your desktop to do the conversion locally.

It's not reasonable to assume that any of these tools will do a perfect job of the conversion for you. Detailed formatting is likely to be lost or compromised in the conversion process.

The problems will be even more apparent when you try to convert a pdf to an Excel or spreadsheet file. At best, you can expect to extract a table of data from the PDF file but you are unlikely ever to get the underlying formulas out of the pdf. This is because they were probably never saved inside the pdf format in the first place.

For this reason, if you really need the formulas go back to the original file creator and see if they can get you the spreadsheet version.

Microsoft Office

The free online Microsoft Web Apps give you a way to view and edit Microsoft Office documents even if you don't own Office.

Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her Web site, HelenBradley.com.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Aug 17th 2011
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