By Gregg Keizer
Microsoft this week revised the schedule for rolling out a Chrome browser extension to Office 365 customers, which at one point would have forced users to switch to the company’s own Bing search engine.
Rather than deliver the Chrome add-on to version 2002 of Office 365 ProPlus between February and July, the Redmond, Wash. developer will instead begin adding it to Google’s browser this month as part of version 2005, with a finish date yet to be determined.
Microsoft did not offer a reason for the new schedule – unlike for other instances where it has cited the coronavirus pandemic for calendar changes – but it certainly needed more time after it had reversed itself in February.
At the top of the year, Microsoft quietly announced that it would change the default search engine of Google’s Chrome to Bing – Microsoft’s own search service – on PCs running Office 365 ProPlus, the productivity applications that serve as the heart of enterprise-grade Office 365 subscriptions.
(As of April 21, Office 365 ProPlus was re-branded Microsoft 365 Apps, part of a larger renaming effort.)
The change of Chrome’s default search was required to implement Microsoft Search, which when tied to an Office 365 account lets users look up company information – internal documents stored on OneDrive or SharePoint, for example – from the browser’s address bar. That functionality had already been baked into Microsoft’s own Edge browser, which not surprisingly also tapped Bing as its search default.
Customers wasted little time panning the move, calling it everything from “browser hijacking” to “malware” for the sneaky way Microsoft proposed to make Chrome a Bing-dependent application. Within a few weeks, Microsoft backtracked, saying it would not automatically deploy the add-on with Office 365 ProPlus.
Details of exactly what Microsoft would do, however, remained cloudy until this week.
According to Microsoft, it will start providing the offer-the-extension with newly-installed and upgraded Microsoft 365 Apps version 2005 – the May update – rather than version 2002. The add-on will first be offered in late May to Windows devices that have been set to receive the Monthly Channel builds. Systems that receive Monthly Channel (Targeted) builds – which give customers an early look at the Monthly update, typically a week before that’s issued – should see the add-on hit Chrome by the middle of this month.
Unlike earlier this year, that’s as far as Microsoft’s latest schedule went. Both Semi-Annual Channel and Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) were listed as “to be determined” by Microsoft in the wide-ranging support document on the Chrome add-on.
Note: The next slated Semi-Annual Channel upgrade for Microsoft 365 Apps should be version 2008, an August release.
Microsoft also described under what conditions and how the use-Bing add-on would be installed to Chrome. As critics demanded when the company broached the subject, customers must opt in to receiving the Chrome extension; the Microsoft 365 Apps administrator does that by checking a new box in the admin center.
Another requirement: an unnamed background service that runs behind the scenes, looks in the admin center and then installs the extension if it “sees” the checked box. The background service is installed automatically – it’s actually the part that Microsoft will deploy this month to Monthly Channel and Monthly Channel (Targeted) builds – across the board. Once on the Windows machine, the service sits, waits and sniffs out the admin center box’s status.
The service will be added only to PCs joined using Active Directory, Microsoft said. “The background service is not installed if the device is joined only to an Azure Active Directory (AAD) domain,” Microsoft said.
The support document included instructions on how to prevent the background service from being installed in the first place, and described how to remove it once it had gotten into Windows.
Suspicious minds might wonder whether, once the background service is in place, Microsoft could, at some future point, circumvent the opt-in of the checked box. Yet it’s hard to see how Microsoft could automatically offer the add-on to large numbers of Windows devices managed by customers that want the extension without such a service. Cynics and the paranoid can, of course, use Microsoft’s instructions to remove the service.
Microsoft re-confirmed that it still plans to craft a similar add-on for Mozilla’s Firefox browser. “Support for the Firefox web browser is planned for a later date,” the company noted.
This story, “Microsoft to start changing Chrome’s search engine to Bing for opt-in customers” was originally published by
Senior Reporter Gregg Keizer covers Windows, Office, Apple/enterprise, web browsers and web apps for Computerworld.
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