The New Microsoft Office Feature Nobody Asked For
Use Office 365 in your workplace? You may want to turn off an upcoming new feature—so your employees aren’t suddenly pushed to use Microsoft Bing as their search engine starting later this month.
Tech throwbacks are far from uncommon things these days (we just went through a solid week of reminiscing about the now 10-year-old iPad) but sometimes, the throwbacks aren’t always good things for the industry.
Recently, Microsoft—which has been earning general plaudits for its updated Edge browser—did something that angered a whole bunch of its digital stalwarts. To put it simply, the company announced that for users of its Office 365 ProPlus plan (common in many offices, especially smaller ones), it would automatically install an extension to Google Chrome that would default users to Microsoft’s Bing, a search engine that has long maintained an also-ran status in pretty much every use case in which it’s offered.
While users can switch their search engine back to Google, the extension installation can only be disabled at the enterprise level. Per Inc., uninstalling the extension from Chrome is harder than basically any other Chrome extension, requiring a trip to the Windows Control Panel.
Microsoft’s argument for doing this is that it has extended its Bing offering to more deeply integrate with Office 365, making it a more useful option. (The search functionality also exists in many Office 365 apps. They really want you to use it.)
“By making Bing the default search engine, users in your organization with Google Chrome will be able to take advantage of Microsoft Search, including being able to access relevant workplace information directly from the browser address bar,” the company stated on an information page about the shift. “Microsoft Search is part of Microsoft 365 and is turned on by default for all Microsoft apps that support it.”
An Unfortunate Regression
But there are a lot of issues with this—among them, the fact that people tend to be very finicky about their search engines (which often cover numerous areas of life), that the Office 365 search feature is not something many users were asking for, and that it generally feels like an overreach. It evokes the things the company did during the browser wars, where it used its existing clout in other parts of the software ecosystem to bury an opponent.
It feels like a regression, to be honest with you. A little less than five years ago, I wrote that the company seemed to be in the midst of a “midlife resurgence” that reflected a willingness to shift from its traditional platform-dominance approach used during the Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer eras to a far more open-services approach under Satya Nadella’s leadership. And Microsoft has generally done a good job taking a reasonable approach with acquisitions like Github and LinkedIn. Neither of those sites have ever tried to force you to switch to either Windows or Bing.
The move is going to happen soon for a whole bunch of enterprise users unless it’s shut off shortly—those on the monthly update channel could be getting the update as early as the middle of February, and as late as July, with the update targeted toward certain countries. For users on monthly updates, that’s not a lot of time to respond to an unwelcome guest that they now have to support.
As you might imagine, backlash against this move is picking up—with many comparing the situation to malware. As Computerworld notes, Google has specifically taken steps to prevent the exploitation of its extensions engine using tactics of this very nature—which gives the move something of a spyware feel.
“Microsoft made this decision even though it had to know that the plot would receive serious pushback and could easily guess the forms of that criticism,” the website’s Gregg Keizer wrote.
A Decline in Dominance?
In a way, the tactic underlines the fact that Microsoft dominates fewer areas of our digital lives than it might have two decades ago, despite its continued financial success.
Windows is still common, but the Mac has made inroads (despite stumbles) and smartphones have made laptops and desktops somewhat less important in the grand scheme. Edge’s recent improvements are the result of a switch to the engine Google Chrome uses. And one of its biggest recent successes, Microsoft Teams, is a direct response to a rising competitor, Slack, and tools like it.
Sure, your association might use Office 365, but you don’t have to use Office 365 anymore. There are options—including Google’s own GSuite and an array of software-as-a-service tools by smaller players.
Perhaps that’s why Microsoft is tightening its grasp.
A sign at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. (rvolkan/iStock Unreleased)