OS X Foibles,
Or Dealing With Office X in OS 9

Updated: 2-26-2003

Commentary by Robert Zimmerman

The Problem

Many people have found after installing Microsoft Office V.x on their Macs that attempting to open an Office document (Word, Excel, or Powerpoint file) by double-clicking the file while booted into OS 9 results in a failed opening of the OS X version of Office instead of the OS 9 version of the program. This is despite having a perfectly serviceable OS 9 compatible copy of Office installed on their Macintosh (Office 98 or Office 2001). This is, to say the least, maddening. Thoughts of Gate-icide have been known to spontaneously erupt upon encountering the problem.

A temporary solution is to open the corresponding application prior to double-clicking your file. But, as they say, "There ought to be a better way." The Macintosh ought to be able to distinguish what is being asked of it and respond accordingly. After all, not everybody experiences this exasperating chain of events.

Description of "The Problem"

When a Macintosh program creates a file, the file includes information to be used in linking that file with the program that created it. Unlike Windows, which uses a suffix to identify the file type, the Macintosh utilizes "Bundles" that contain both file type and creator information. This information can be gleaned using programs that examine and decode the file's resource fork, which is a special portion of the file (actually a separate file but associated with the file in question) containing information used by the Macintosh to help create the Macintosh look and feel. Using Microsoft Word as an example, making a normal Word document in Office 98 results in the file type becoming "WDBN" and the creator is "MSWD". File type codes and creator codes are always four characters long. If the same file had been created in OS X using the Word program from Office v.X, the file type would be "W8BN" and the creator would again be "MSWD".

The figure below shows the file icons associated with the Office 98 created Word files and the same file created using Office v.X in OS X.

Within the Mac operating systems prior to OS X, the Macintosh utilizes an invisible file system of databases which contain correlations between file types and creators and the programs that correspond to these codes. This is the "Desktop Database", and it is what gets updated when a Macintosh "Desktop Rebuild" is performed. When a user double-clicks on a file icon (or file name in a list view), the Macintosh consults the file type and creator obtained from the file and performs a lookup operation within the Desktop Database, and summons the corresponding program to open (if it is not already open) and then open the file which was double-clicked.

The desktop database files are updated whenever a new program is installed on the Macintosh. So, if Office 98 is already on the machine, and Office v.X is later installed, the database is modified to include the file associations present in Office v.X.

You might see where there could be problems. What happens if more than one copy of a program exists on the hard drive(s)? What happens if two programs have the same creator code? It is possible to create chaos from either of these situations.

Fortunately, the Mac OS tries to avoid chaos in these situation. After determining the program to be used in opening a file, the Mac first checks to see if that program is already running. If it is, it uses that running copy to open the file. That is why first opening Word 2001, for example, will result in a Word document opening in Word 2001, even if "The Problem" exists. Otherwise, the OS searches the boot drive, then other attached drives in order (alpha-numerically, I believe, with local drives searched before network drives) for the program in question. Most people only have the boot drive, which simplifies the search. But if two copies of a program are on the same drive, the operating system will try to open the first one it encounters.

But, you say, Word v.X and Word 2001 are two different programs. Indeed they are, but if the desktop database points Word files (those with a creator of "MSWD") to Word v.X, then the operating system will dutifully try to open the OSX program, which it can't do in OS9. Hence, "The Problem" manifests itself. Note that this just won't happen if Office 2001 or 98 is on a different drive or partition searched earlier than the one with Office v.X, one possible reason to create a separate OSX partition.

The Solution

As pointed out, a temporary solution is to open your OS 9 Office programs prior to trying to double-click your documents. This is inelegant, and therefore not a preferred solution. Another method would be to repartition your drive, but this is a major hassle which is guaranteed to wipe out your hard drive, so you'd better back up first. Again, not a great solution. Fortunately MacFixit contributor Richard Bottigliere came up with a simple, non-destructive answer to "The Problem". Let me quote from his December 2001 post:

"I recently came across a somewhat common problem with Office v.X applications launching in OS 9 after installation, and the problem was driving me crazy. ...

I found a solution to this problem. A little freeware Mac tool that has been around for a while called "Save a BNDL" will fix this issue."

Richard's solution works. After a bit of searching, the aforementioned utility revealed itself to still be extant on the Info-Mac archives, and can be snagged at:


Quoting from Richard's post again:

"To use it, you must be booted into OS 9. Simply drag all of the Office 2001 or 98 application icons onto the Save a BUNDL (sic) icon. This will basically tell the Finder's database to get the icon information for any office documents (determined by the documents' creator codes) from the Office 2001 version of the applications. In addition, double-clicking any Office file now launches the appropriate application in OS 9.

I'm a happy camper again, and can now use the appropriate Office suite when booted either in 9 or X."

This small program and its application should banish "The Problem" once and for all.

Robert Zimmerman