It feels strange to be writing about Microsoft and not mentioning a security loophole or zero-day exploit, but it is the day before April Fool’s after all. Fortunately for the iPad faithful, this isn’t a prank. On March 27, Microsoft launched iPad versions of it’s most used office productivity applications: Word, Excel and PowerPoint, all of them available for free download through the App store. “What’s the catch,” I hear you say? You can use them free, forever, to view documents, but if you want to create or edit documents, you need to have a subscription to Office365.com, the minimum of which is $70/year.
What this means for you:
The lack of any official MS Office software may have been one of the remaining tenuous barriers holding the iPad back from a complete domination of corporate boardrooms. Long a favorite of executives but usually relegated to email-only roles because of this lack, Office for the iPad may allow the C-suite to completely cut the cord on any vestigial Windows laptops they have been “forced” to carry around to do anything other than reading emails. I also know a lot of road warriors who may view the new apps with a mix of joy and trepidation, as it will conceivably allow for more effective work-related use of their iPad on those cramped, coach-fare flights. The excuse of “not being able to edit that Word document during the flight because all I have is my iPad” just won’t cut it anymore.
In all seriousness, this also marks a significant change in vision for Microsoft, a company that up until the new CEO’s arrival, had been a company that always put “Windows first”, even when it may have meant losing marketshare, as it has for so long in the iPad space. It’s still too early to tell whether this change in corporate values will lead to other transformations and products for other platforms (Office for Android anyone?), but this is certainly a step in new direction for the company.
Microsoft has released a security advisory that warns of a new zero-day weakness that is currently being exploited on the internet. Depending on how you interpret their choice of wording – “targeted attacks” – the scale seems to be relatively limited for the moment, but given that the compromised app is Microsoft Word and is not limited to a specific version, the potential attack surface is huge. And it gets better: the delivery mechanism is a hacked RTF file that once opened can lead to the targeted machine being completely compromised. While RTF files aren’t as widely used as the default “.doc” and “.docx” formats, they are used to export and import documents from Word to other word processing platforms like Wordperfect, LibreOffice, OpenOffice and Apple Pages.
What this means for you:
Microsoft has issued a temporary fix which merely disables the ability for Word to open RTF files, but as of the moment there is no ETA on a patch delivered by Windows Update. We recommend applying this Fix-it if you are at all unsure what an RTF file is, or how to tell the difference from other Word and Email formats.
The most vulnerable user to this exploit is actually someone who uses Word to view formatted emails delivered via Outlook. Normally, Outlook is not set to view emails using Word by default, so if you didn’t set Outlook to do this, you only have to worry about Word. If you did, disable this feature and use Outlook’s built-in email viewer to read formatted emails. For Word users, don’t open RTF files, even if they come from a trusted source, and don’t send any RTF files, as your recipients may be exercising the same level of caution. If you have to exchange data using RTF, make sure you communicate thoroughly with your recipients, and choose another platform other than email to exchange files, primarily so there is no chance they could mistake a trojaned RTF for a legitimate file.