Converting and opening legacy files

Rescued from Oblivion

Article from Issue 170/2015

Can documents from the past 20 years still be opened easily today? The Linux Magazine team rummaged through some old hard disk drives and asked readers for legacy files. The documents we found caused a couple of surprises.

Everyone who was wise enough to make the move to Linux in the mid-1990s tended to write their letters and papers in StarOffice. At the time, no other alternatives provided such a broad range of functions, and it was available for free to non-commercial users. However, anyone wanting to open files that were created back then now faces a problem: OpenOffice and LibreOffice, which are based on the source code published by StarOffice around the turn of the millennium, refuse to cooperate.

In fact, in the history of the two office packages, the file format changed twice. The first OpenOffice in 2002 threw the StarOffice proprietary file format out the window and used its proprietary, but open, format named XML. The extension for text documents was SXW.

However, since OpenOffice 2, the standardized Open Document Format is now used, and text documents have an ODT extension. OpenOffice 2 was the last version that could still read and convert the old StarOffice documents with SDW extensions. Anyone wanting to save old letters in the modern era must therefore install OpenOffice 2 once again (Figure 1).

Figure 1: OpenOffice 2 can still open old StarOffice documents – shown here running on Ubuntu 08.04 in a virtual machine..

Apache may still provide this old version in its archives for download [1], but it cannot easily be installed on current systems: OpenOffice 2.4.3 crashed repeatedly on a test system with Ubuntu 14.04. A virtual machine provides a solution (see the "Reanimation" box). Current OpenOffice and LibreOffice versions, on the other hand, can still read files from OpenOffice 1.


If a document can no longer be opened or converted with a current program, Linux users once again need to turn to the legacy tools. Using them, you can call up the document, postprocess it if necessary, and then export it to an exchange format. This way, formatting and formulae often survive better than if imported into new software.

If the required application no longer runs on your current computer, and no older computers are accessible, you can reanimate it on a new machine. However, setting up such a computer properly is pretty time-consuming. Besides the actual application, you also need a suitable operating system. Microsoft Works 2.0, for example, wants Windows 3.1, whereas you have to find a Linux distribution from 2009 for OpenOffice 2. This is pretty difficult because many distributors only keep the latest versions of their distribution. Canonical is an exception because they provide all previous Ubuntu versions in an archive  [2].

For MS-DOS programs, the specialized DOSBox [3] emulator at least saves you the trouble of installing the operating system; however, it will not launch just any application.


Linux users had to resort to the commercial Applixware in the early days before StarOffice took the stage. On its sites, the vendor Vistasource still offers the ancient 6.1 version of Applixware [4]. The free trial version is time-bombed to stop running after 30 days, but this should be more than enough time to convert old files (Figure 2).

Figure 2: To get Applixware to run, you first have to set it up using the installer script supplied by the vendor.

The package provided by Vistasource with the 32-bit version was, however, always broken in our Linux Magazine lab. Version 6, which is still available, can be extracted, but it needs a seven-year-old libstdc++ version. Fortunately, there is still a Debian package available [5]. Alternatively, Calligra Words also imports old Applixware documents, although most of the formatting was lost in our tests (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Calligra Words imports hardly any documents correctly. In the picture, for example, you can see the Applixware document that Figure 2 shows in the original.

In the 1990s, basically everyone who owned a computer was familiar with the funny-sounding programs Works, Ami Pro, and Word Pro. The small office suite Works, which was far cheaper than the big Word office suite and, above all, came free with many newly purchased computers, was from Microsoft. It was only four years ago that Microsoft dumped the small suite to focus on its Office suite. Thus, it's all the more surprising that any program can import the documents into Linux.

Only LibreOffice (but not OpenOffice) can open text documents with the WPS extension. Additionally, all of the formatting survived the import in our sample documents (Figure 4). However, LibreOffice has no idea what to do with tables and databases from Works. Importing tables can be forced, but the results are useless. Shortly after the submission deadline, the document foundation published LibreOffice 4.3, which was supposed to be able to import Works files. Lo and behold, we really were able to open those documents, although some of the relationships mutated into HTML entities in the process. The new version converts Works databases into tables.

Figure 4: LibreOffice imports the text files from Works with pretty decent results.

Anyone having problems with Works documents needs to install the Windows program on a virtual machine (see the "Reanimation" box). Microsoft also provides an official conversion tool [6], which also requires a Windows environment. Databases can alternatively be converted into CSV tables on the Works website [7].

Computer retailer Escom included Lotus SmartSuite with its PCs in the 1990s. Among other things, it contained the Ami Pro word processor, which has operated under the name Word Pro since 1995. Libre- and OpenOffice will open documents from Word Pro with LWP extensions, but not Ami Pro files with SAM extensions. KWord, which was absorbed by Calligra Words, could read simple Ami Pro documents, but Calligra itself no longer provides Ami Pro file imports.

LibreOffice reliably reads simple Word Pro documents, and the layout survived in the tests (Figure 5). The results were a bit different with complex documents containing tables: LibreOffice ignored them, leaving us sitting in front of a blank page on occasion.

Figure 5: LibreOffice can read simple Word Pro files.

Can Opener

LibreOffice also imported Word documents with the DOC extension as far back as Word for Windows in version 6 or 95. This process did not, however, always work flawlessly in our lab: Although the layout of simple test documents was preserved, more complex documents looked a bit frayed at the edges (Figure 6). LibreOffice also refused to cooperate with a Word document.

Figure 6: LibreOffice can import Word files without problems, but it stumbles over complex layouts.

Importing Word documents in Calligra Words was as disaster: Hardly any of the layout remained intact and, in one case, the word processor actually painted all the text blue (Figure 7). The above-mentioned good results do not apply to the first versions of Word for DOS. Libre and OpenOffice only recognized one text document created by a reader in the early 1990s with MS Word 5 (extension .txt) as plain text and displayed all the control characters. The same was true for documents from Word for OS/2, also known as PM Word. At least the pure text content was retrieved, however.

Figure 7: Calligra Words essentially retains the text from Word docs.

The command-line program Antiword  [8], which many distributions include, can also help. It converts ancient Word formats into plain text, XML, Postscript, or PDF. Users need to decide whether they want to keep the layout or edit the text.

Wordperfect documents from the 1990s, on the other hand, can be imported perfectly. This word processor was the market leader before the appearance of Microsoft Word and also appeared later in a native version for Linux. However, the current owner, Corel, put aside the native conversion and instead sold a Windows version powered by Wine for Linux.

In the early 1990s, the WordStar word processor lived in the shadow of Word and Wordperfect. Although the program retained some followers, testers could find no conversion option. Only the Windows versions of StarOffice 5.2 to 8 imported WordStar documents (WSD extension). A WordStar clone is currently being programmed under the code-name WordTsar [9].

Old LaTeX documents can be compiled without complications – provided they do not use extremely exotic add-on packages.

Paper Box

LibreOffice imported Excel tables with XLS extensions without problems; formulas and diagrams remained intact (Figure 8). The spreadsheet only threw the macros out of the window. The results in Calligra Sheets are unsatisfactory in comparison: Not only did the layout slip, but the spreadsheet also replaced the charts with an image of a question mark (Figure 9). One striking point was that the test documents almost exclusively contained simple formulas and simple calculations. The majority of Excel users seem to use only a fraction of its functions.

Figure 8: LibreOffice does not have any problems with Excel tables and the charts they contain …
Figure 9: … but competitor Calligra Sheets does.

The Calligra Stage presentation program impresses with its handling of PowerPoint documents. Only the bullet points were missing in the test documents. LibreOffice does not have any problems with this either. Kexi can at least import tables from Access databases. A test document made the application crash, but the conversion seemed to work.

MDB Tools provides an alternative [10]. The mdb-export command-line program contained in the package converts a database into CSV format; gmdb2 provides a graphical user interface that peeps into an MDB file (Figure 10). Incidentally, MDB Tools includes libraries and tools for developers that they can use to get to Access databases from C programs. Libre- and OpenOffice cannot currently open Access databases.

Figure 10: Opening and exporting Access files with Gmdb from the MDB Tools.

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