How to recover when Apple Numbers says a file “can’t be opened for some reason”

Do not use this as an error message
Ever wondered what the worst error message you could encounter might be? This ranks pretty highly.

Prologue: backup

First of all, remember how people always told you to take backups, rather as you were advised to wear sunscreen? Well, they were right. Bear that in mind as I take you through on a journey of mild technology pain.

The high: Sierra

Having not seen any reports of gigantic showstopping bugs in the upgrade to Mac OS Sierra, I took the plunge the other day. Things were going fine. Everything worked. Nothing had crashed. Then I updated Numbers from 3.6.2 to 4.0, whose “new” features are apparently collaboration – and nothing much else.

Having done that, I tried to open one of my most-used spreadsheets, into which I have poured years of experience and hours of analysis. I’d had it open before the update, but (I think) had closed it before updating. (Whether it was open or not is immaterial; some other spreadsheets were open before the update and opened fine afterwards; some were closed before the update and opened fine afterwards; some were closed before and wouldn’t open afterwards.)

I was met with this response:

Screenshot 2016 09 26 15 06 13

The low: Numbers

The spreadsheet can’t be opened “for some reason”?? What sort of error message is that??

But at least it offers the option to “Browse all versions”, which should be stored in iCloud, where the spreadsheet itself is stored. You then go into a Time Machine interface, and get this:

Screenshot 2016 09 26 15 07 23

It’s “unable to open version”. This happens no matter how far back you want to go. You can try with lots of “versions”. Or you can realise you’re onto a lost cause and give up. At which point the “Time Machine” interface resolves itself into a rectangle, in which you find this message:

Screenshot 2016 09 24 20 57 46

Well, thanks a lot. “For some reason.” How this ever got past any sort of quality assurance I cannot imagine. Did the engineer/s assign an out-of-bounds error code to the problem, and the operating system can’t decide what to say and so falls back to “for some reason”?

This is a giant screwup

Whichever; it’s a terrible, terrible experience for the user. You’re left unable to open the file, with no idea what has gone wrong, and no clues how to progress. If you had really valuable stuff in here, and no means of rolling back, you would be absolutely furious – justifiably so – with Apple.

Tracing the error

What has gone wrong here? You can dig into iWork files (Numbers, Pages, Keynote). They’re “packages”, which means that they’re folders disguised to look like files. Control-click on the file and you can “view package contents”, which in the case of this spreadsheet looks like this:

Screenshot 2016 09 26 15 34 49

Turns out that all the meat is in “index.zip”. I made a copy on my Desktop and unzipped it:
Screenshot 2016 09 26 15 36 43

That’s only a few files; the “Tables” folder contains 523 items. Which of these hundreds of items is at fault? One? Two? Two hundred? There’s no way of knowing. Given that none of the previous versions will load under this version of Numbers, it doesn’t matter how many of the files are screwed. You can’t get there from here.

Why you love your backups

I did try to get around this. Believe me. On an iPad (which hadn’t updated to the equivalent newer version of Numbers) I tried opening the original spreadsheet.

Opened fine.

Oh. So I tried AirDrop to send the can-be-opened-from-iCloud spreadsheet from the iPad to the Mac. The AirDrop worked, but the Mac wouldn’t open it – same message as before. On the iPad, you can also export the file: your options are Numbers, Excel, PDF, or CSV.

Export in Numbers and AirDrop? Didn’t work.
Export in Excel and AirDrop? Worked – except that the various tables that had been on a single sheet were split out into separate sheets. Non-ideal.

So the iPad route wasn’t quite right.

But I wasn’t finished yet. Did you notice how I mentioned backups? Before upgrading, I had made a backup of my hard drive using SuperDuper! (highly recommended).

So I plugged in my backup drive – I’m always careful not to overwrite it until I’m confident a big OS update hasn’t screwed anything – and dug around for the old version of Numbers (v 3.6.2), and put that back in.

Open Numbers 362, try to open spreadsheet.

It opens. No muss, no fuss.

Worse than error messages: no error messages

In many ways, this is even worse. What’s the situation here? We have a newer version of Numbers on the Mac which cannot open an untouched version of a spreadsheet that the older version can open.

Together with the colossal stupidity of “for some reason” as an error message, a new version that randomly can’t open an old spreadsheet (but is fine with many others), even while the old one can, makes one think that whoever is in charge of Numbers, or iWork, isn’t getting it right.

A lot of it is down to the error message. If it said “because two of the files are corrupt” you might begin to understand. But of course it can’t be that, because the old version can read it. “Some reason” sounds vague – is vague – but in a sense, it’s accurate. Whatever the reason for being unable to open this file is, it’s quite elusive. I had initially thought that it was something to do with picture embeds, but the problem persisted when I got rid of those. (There’s nothing in the Console app about it, so Numbers clearly doesn’t want to share whatever its discomfort is with the file/s.)

Anyway. Having got the old version of Numbers installed, I could now open the old spreadsheet. Fine. I’ll stick with that, I thought.

The morning after the night before

Problem over, you think? Not at all. On returning to the iPad the next day, I found it had updated to the newer version of Numbers – the one with collaboration.

Guess what? That’s right: the iPad version no longer opened the old spreadsheet.

Computing often has these moments – when you feel as though you’re standing on a very rickety rope ladder across a gigantic chasm, halfway from each side, with little prospect of reaching either side safely, yet obliged to go in one direction or the other. The previous day I could open the spreadsheet on the iPad, but I couldn’t get it safely back to the Mac. Now I could open it fine on the Mac, but I couldn’t get the iPad to read it. Not really the world of device-independent operation that one dreams of.

But but but! There is a solution on the Mac. You can load the file on the old version of Numbers, and then in the File menu there’s the option to export it to a Numbers ’09 format. (No idea what’s so great/terrible about that.) Notice that that export option wasn’t available on the iPad.

Here’s what it looks like:

Screenshot 2016 09 26 16 14 52

Worth a try, I thought. And indeed it was. I named the files created that way with an “09” suffix, and suddenly they opened on the iPad – with all the tables and charts intact.

Update: another tactic which I didn’t try, but which might work (I haven’t had the same problem again) is to log in to icloud.com and try to open or upload or similarly wrangle the file there. Make sure FIRST you have a backup of it, on a USB key or other cloud service; the greatest mistake is working on the only copy of an essential file.

Teachable moments

This is one of the biggest WTF moments in an episode replete with them. I’ve reinstalled an older version of Numbers, and exported to an even older file version, in order to open the file on the newest version. It’s beyond bizarre.

Thankfully, it seems that there aren’t too many people having this problem; my own searches on the phrase “can’t be opened for some reason” turned up pretty much nothing. If we’re all lucky, then nobody will land on this page via a web search; you’ll all just be reading it for abstract interest, wondering how an operating system and a QA team can ever let “can’t be opened for some reason” be signed off as “OK for public consumption”. Apple puts a premium on its products and prides itself on its user interface; this, though, is one that got away, badly.

But what if you haven’t kept that backup of the Numbers app? In that case, I’m not able to offer any help. Perhaps you can find a friend who has a copy of the older version. Perhaps there’s a trustworthy download site. Perhaps you can get one by finding a Mac that hasn’t been updated and sending the version there. Perhaps you can rummage around in your Time Machine backup and reanimate the old version. Maybe you have a CD in your house with an older version. (Clutching at straws here, but I recognise that spreadsheets carry a lot of our lives nowadays.)

The simplest solution is not to update Numbers, which of course always feels like admitting defeat. The pragmatic solution is to export all your spreadsheets to the 09 format. The belt-and-braces solution (since this might be an iCloud problem) is to duplicate your spreadsheets on your hard drive, and export each into the 09 format – then you have three copies of them.

Whichever – I hope it goes well. And I hope never ever to run into “some reason” as the explanation for why an essential piece of content can’t be accessed. Fix it, Apple.

12 thoughts on “How to recover when Apple Numbers says a file “can’t be opened for some reason”

  1. Yeah, feeling you pain on that Charles. Similar to an issue I had a few years back when Pages was updated and couldn’t open Pages files from earlier versions. I got a refund for the Mac app store Pages purchase and was advised to purchas an old copy of Pages 09 (on disc!) which would open the files and also be eligible for future app store updates.

    So I did this and indeed got the updates once the app store / iCloud versions were once more capable of opening their own files! but then suddenly, despite being told an update is available I get a message as not possible as I had previously received a refund.

    It’s all a great shame as I’ve purchased and used Apple’s ‘Office suite since the days it was Claris Works then Apple Works, then iWork and and it’s always, you know, just worked.

    My invoice now have to be created on the iPad and although it mostly works, I cannot for the life of me find a way to create a formula in a table cell (in pages) even to just add a total of the above cells. So I have to add the figures up myself and type the total in (like an animal;)

    You can, of course, create a new formula for a cell in Numbers for iOS as I have used it for my accounts but somehow it was deemed unimportant for table cells in Pages. Apple have been touting the iPad as a serious productivity tool for a while now so it’s odd to allow such an omission.

    Incompatibilty and QC issues are even more of a concern.

  2. Had the exact same problem. Thanks a bunch for sharing the solution! I opened it on an old iPad and managed to export the file by email in XLSX, CSV and PDF. That file contained my entire business’ book keeping! Albeit a small home business, which is more of a hobby, but still.

  3. I have the same problems with many of my files. This is quite a disaster. But i managed to fix it by simple steps. I have only tried it on one file so far, but it worked. Better make a backup that you modify this way, and note that it will remove all images in your numbers file:

    1. Right-click on numbers file and open package.
    2. Delete all of these:
    a.) The folder “Data” (this seems to contain images only),
    b.) The folder “Metadata”,
    c.) And files “preview-micro.jpg”, “preview-web.jpg” and “preview.jpg”

    When i did this, i could open the file, but not only that – i could open the original file also, that was not modified! And it now seem to work as it should.

    Perhaps not all those files need to be deleted, but it may only be one or few of them. But i dont see any harm in removing Metadata and preview, since it will probably be reproduced anyways.

    • Thanks, Robert. That does sound like a good idea. I think the problem arises when there’s file corruption – some time after this my install began running slowly, which is a sure sign of disk problems, and Disk Utility confirmed it.

  4. I just ran in to this issue opening an older Pages file. I’m currently running Pages 5.6.2. I was able open my file by right-clicking on it and choosing Open With … then … Pages (4.0).

    Epic fail on Apple’s part really. Guess I’ll start using Word and Google Docs more – sorry Apple – get your stuff together and I’ll come back. 😉

  5. Thanks for the work. I just tested this with a file created in Open Office Calc then exported in assorted Excel, CSV formats and Numbers ( ver 4.0.5 ) is giving me “can’t be opened for some reason”. “Collaborate & Die” or “Apple way or the highway”. More research is form of job security…

    • If OpenOffice created it then it might be corrrupt from the start. You could try using iCloud.com – something I overlooked.
      Numbers can surely open csv.

      • Yes it did open the CSV. OpenOffice from the “start”?

        Perhaps as I do not know your experiences. with OO, mine have been OK till recently updates from Apple.

  6. Thank you for the post. I’ve just encountered this error while trying to open a spreadsheet I brought over from the PC that my MacBook is replacing. Some sheets opened ok – except for links being replaced by values – but this ‘for some reason’ message has appeared for one that has fairly simple contents. And I have Numbers 3.6.2… so I’m going to head out to the Apple store and see what they can do.

    • As it contains links it will be tricky, but you might try uploading the original Excel file into your account on icloud.com – that might be better at it.

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