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Opposition grows to Microsoft’s make-Chrome-use-Bing plan for Office 365 customers

Resistance has mounted over the last several days to Microsoft’s decision to change the default search engine of Google’s Chrome to Bing on personal computers running Office 365 ProPlus.

Microsoft quietly announced the move Jan. 21 on its Microsoft 365 Roadmap page, then on Jan. 22 published support documents with additional information and a blog post that stated the company’s rationale.

Commentary on Microsoft’s blog, the support document and elsewhere — including an Office 365 website dedicated to user requests — was almost universally negative.

“I can’t believe you think this is an acceptable business practice,” asserted Rickey Roach in a comment appended to the Office 365 team’s blog post.

“This is … overreach,” opined Tom Arbuthnot on that same blog. Arbuthnot was identified as an MVP, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional. “Microsoft might be doing this because they think it will give the user a better experience, but doing it by default without even asking the user or the organization is too much. I’m pretty sure Google won’t be too pleased with this either.” (Arbuthnot expanded on his criticism on his personal blog.)

It’s all about Microsoft Search

Microsoft’s scheme to switch Chrome from its designated search choice to Bing was part of the firm’s Microsoft Search strategy.

“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,” Microsoft contended in a Jan. 23 support document.

Microsoft Search, which the company unveiled in May 2019, was designed to make search in the enterprise — in Microsoft-made and third-party applications — more productive. Rather than return just website links, Microsoft Search would find information from files and those applications’ content, bringing to the forefront not only matches and near matches but also what the algorithms believed the user really was after. In Edge, the service is dubbed “Microsoft Search in Bing.”

Microsoft Search is a key component of Microsoft 365, the über subscription that bundles Office 365, Windows 10 and management tools, and appears to be a major initiative. (One way to gauge the latter: the comprehensive Microsoft Search in Bing adoption kit, a cache of email, poster and evaluation templates companies can use to educate workers on the service and convince them to try it.)

Apparently, Microsoft was so set on spreading the new search service that it decided to force it on those enterprise users — the ones running Office 365, anyway — who have Chrome as their default browser. 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.

Browser hijacking?

Not surprisingly, much of the blowback equated the unsolicited search change to the practices of malware makers and scammers.

“Force-changing the settings on a user for arbitrary reasons circles the drain of ‘unlawful,’ and is effectively browser hijacking,” said someone labeled only as camxct on GitHub, where comments attached to support documents appeared.

“Browser hijacking like in the 90s. Are you nuts?” asked kgbvax, perhaps not rhetorically.

The phrase “browser hijacking” — and others, including PUP, for “potentially unwanted program” — harked back years to a time when that practice was common. Malicious actors would infect a system with malware that changed a browser’s settings — typically its default search engine and/or home page — to drive traffic to specific sites where they could collect advertising revenue.

Google spent significant time and effort in blocking hijackers from taking over Chrome and in barring unofficial add-ons — those not hosted in the Chrome Web Store, more or less — from installing, all part of a years-long process to lock down the browser.

Now, Microsoft is attempting to do to Chrome just what Google has tried to stop.

“Chrome is not your browser, leave it alone!” said someone identified only as Andrew on the User Voice site Microsoft runs to solicit feedback and requests for Office. “This is adware at best! I am absolutely flabbergasted by this stunt!”

(As of 2 p.m. ET Jan. 28, that item on User Voice had been upvoted more than 900 times and had collected more than 180 comments.)

Others swore revenge. “This really makes me regret pushing Office 365 so hard where I work. You guys are putting egg on my face,” wrote Daniel Prince on the User Voice site. “I’m in charge of 90,000 Windows and Mac devices. Next week, we are blocking Bing.com at the firewall level. Hope this little stunt you pulled was worth it.”

Software should obtain your consent, says Microsoft

Microsoft’s add-on has already appeared on Google’s Chrome Web Store, hinting that Google at least implicitly approved of the extension. Dubbed Microsoft Search in Bing quick access, it was updated as recently as today.

A pair of users objected to the extension in the Store, too. “Unwanted plugin, should not be allowed to install without consent,” argued Michael Studte. “Mess with Chrome Edge all you want, but don’t touch non-Microsoft browsers!”

The thing is, Microsoft’s own policies have — or still do; it’s unclear — forbid changing a browser’s default search engine without authorization.

“All extensions for Microsoft Edge must be deployed from the Microsoft Store,” stated the Microsoft browser extension policy for the old-school Edge. “The installation must be initiated and completed by the user, using only the user experience provided by Microsoft Edge and the Microsoft Store” (emphasis added).

Elsewhere, Microsoft’s own definition of unwanted software included phrasing that may match how it plans to distribute the Chrome extension. In the support document “How Microsoft identifies malware and potentially unwanted applications,” under “Unwanted software,” Microsoft said, “Software should obtain your consent before installing.” Microsoft has said nothing thus far about user consent when it rolls out the next update to Office 365 ProPlus.

Neither Google or Mozilla replied to requests for comment on Microsoft’s plan to issue add-ons for Chrome and Firefox in new installations of Office 365 ProPlus and the next update to ProPlus.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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This month’s Windows and Office security patches: Bugs and solutions

The big patching problems this month fell at the feet of admins who had to deal with an unholy mess of pressing exposures: Fixing the holes in Microsoft’s RD Gateway (CVE-2020-0610; see Susan Bradley’s Patch Watch, paywalled); dealing with Server 2008 R2 systems that booted to Recovery mode after installing the January patches; scrambling to pick up after breaches in Citrix networking products; or the 334 Oracle security patches. They all took a toll.

Those of us not in charge of multinational networks could breathe a little easier. In spite of a stellar advertising campaign from the National Security Agency (NSA), the Chain of Fools/CurveBall CVE-2020-0601 hole hasn’t turned into an active attack. As I said at the time, it’s a long way from a third-degree polynomial to working ransomware.

Yes, you need to patch sooner or later. But, no, the sky isn’t falling. Those reports of the internet’s impending CurveBall doom were just a little bit overblown.

As usual.

Still no ‘optional, non-security’ patches

I would conjecture that the January Patch Tuesday crop is relatively well-behaved because, at least apparently, they only contain security patches. Normally, Microsoft releases dozens of “optional, non-security” patches every month – bug fixes – but those annoying little gnats haven’t made an appearance since October.

I expect that will change shortly. We’ll no doubt see dozens – if not hundreds – of smaller patches out in the usual “C Week/D Week” cadence soon. Since we’ve seen no such infestation in three months, you’d be smart to avoid the “optional” patches, once they arrive, until they’ve been well vetted.

Common patching problems persist

Günter Born has put together a comprehensive list of printing problems associated with recent patches. They seem to come and go – many different printers, many different symptoms.

There are also many reports of January cumulative updates failing to install, with various error message.

None of the problems seem particularly remarkable – or even replicable – to me, but if you get stuck trying to install one of the January patches, your opinion may vary.

Upgrades to 1909 press forward, Microsoft continues to honor 1803 deferrals

If you “seek” by clicking on the “Check for updates” button in Win10 1809 or 1903, Microsoft warns that it may upgrade you to Win10 version 1909:

Current status as of Jan. 21:

Windows 10, version 1909 is available for any user on a recent version of Windows 10 who manually selects “Check for updates” via Windows Update. The recommended servicing status is Semi-Annual Channel.

Of course, Microsoft disavowed any use of the bafflegab phrase “Semi-Annual Channel” a year ago. Consistency. Hobgoblins. Little minds. Microsoft may feel that 1909 is ready for widespread deployment, but I’m still seeing many reports of problems with Win10 version 1909 – the well-documented Search in File Explorer bugs, power problems, video problems, Your Phone oddities.

In addition, Microsoft has warned that it’s starting to force Win10 version 1809 customers onto 1909:

“We are starting the next phase in our controlled approach to automatically initiate a feature update for an increased number of devices running the October 2018 Update (Windows 10, version 1809) Home and Pro editions, keeping those devices supported and receiving the monthly updates that are critical to device security and ecosystem health. Our rollout process starts several months in advance of the end of service date to provide adequate time for a smooth update process.”

For reference, Win10 version 1809 is supposed to hit end of service on May 12. You 1809 users are getting four months shaved off of your promised end of life. As a Service.

Remarkably, tests by @PKCano show that Microsoft is still honoring the “Defer feature updates” setting in Win10 version 1803 Pro. It looks like the methods for staying on 1803, 1809, and 1903 as documented in How to block the Windows 10 November 2019 Update, version 1909, from installing still work. And if you want to upgrade to 1903, avoiding 1909 for the time being, the method described here also works.

Windows 7 gets its butt slapped on the way out

Everybody’s favorite whipping boy, Windows 7, got slapped with two bugs in the final round of free patches.

Anybody using Win7 who installs the January patches will find that their “stretched” desktop wallpaper comes out black, which can look disconcertingly like a Black Screen of Death. Lawrence Abrams has a full description, and a clever workaround, at BleepingComputer.

More alarmingly, Microsoft posted Security Advisory ADV200001 on Jan. 17. The Advisory details yet another security hole in Internet Explorer’s JScript engine, CVE-2020-0674. There’s a manual workaround with numerous side-effects, at least some of which have been overcome by a 0patch micropatch that you can install if you feel threatened.

Here’s the big open question: Will Microsoft fix Windows 7 later this month, in spite of the Jan. 14 end of service deadline? Or will Win7 drift into the sunset with a Black Screen bug and a known IE hole?

Seven semper fi.

Microsoft’s tone-deaf threat to hijack Google Chrome’s search engine

This isn’t a widespread problem. It only applies to those who are running Office 365 ProPlus, which is directed at (but not limited to) Enterprises with savvy admins. But it’s an astounding push nonetheless.

In an official post from ‘Softie Daniel Brown entitled, Microsoft Search in Bing and Office 365 ProPlus, Microsoft seems to be saying that everyone who installs the latest patch for Office 365 ProPlus will have their default search engine in Google Chrome changed to Bing.

I fully expect someone with some sense at Microsoft will swoop down in the next week or two and rescind the decision. But until that happens, this stands as a browser hijacking threat of unprecedented proportions.

Join us for the latest on AskWoody.com.

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Finally! The paperless office! | Computerworld

Service desk gets a call that a printer isn’t working, reports a pilot fish who recently was in charge of updating all the company’s multifunction printers. User says she sent a document to print, walked over to the printer and scanned her card, and the doc showed up as available on the printer. But when she selected the document and hit the print button, it disappeared from the queue and nothing came out.

A tech heads over and finds — an empty paper tray. And once he refills it with paper, a bunch of documents come rushing out.

You don’t even need to check the paper tray to send Sharky your true tales of IT life. I’m at [email protected]. You can also subscribe to the Daily Shark Newsletter.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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This month’s Windows and Office security patches: Bugs and solutions

It was the kind of month admins dread: Mysterious problems on hundreds of machines, with no apparent cause or cure. Toss in the holidays, and we had a whole lot of Mr. and Ms. Grinches in the industry.

Fortunately, it looks like the problems have been sorted out at this point. Individual users had many fewer problems. Microsoft’s left and right hands still aren’t talking on the 1909 team, but what else is new…

Win7 hang on ‘Preparing to configure Windows’

Microsoft dropped a new Servicing Stack Update for Windows 7 on Dec. 10, and it gummed up the works for many. Here’s a good summary on Reddit from poster Djaesthetic:

“We had over 100 Windows 7 Professional endpoints all stuck on “Preparing to configure windows” screen. We couldn’t get beyond that error in any simplistic manner. We eventually got a remediation to get beyond that error (involving booting each one from an ISO and making several registry hive edits to TrustedInstaller). Unfortunately, even after we were able to log in, the entire OS is functionally broken….

“…We are having this same issue on 111 different Windows 7 machines, each one consistently having the same environment problems. We are unable to roll back the KB4530734 Windows Update, likely because the Windows Module Installer (TrustedInstaller.exe) service itself is broken… I’ve been working non-stop all weekend. Currently waiting for (yet another) callback from Microsoft….

As Djaesthetic later posts, the problem is triggered by the Dec. 10 Servicing Stack Update, KB 4531786:

“In our investigation we confirmed the problem having to do with KB4530734 (December Monthly Rollup for Windows 7 Service Pack 1). More specifically, we believe it had something to do with KB4531786 (Servicing stack update for Windows 7 SP1 and Server 2008 R2 SP1: December 10, 2019) applying out of order. Interestingly, if you look at the notes for the December rollup it specifies a recommendation to install the SSU afterward (not a requirement). Lastly, we found some (not all) machines in various states of “Uninstall_Pending” regarding the November Monthly Rollup….”

Those of you using plain old single-system Monthly Rollups won’t encounter the problem. But if you or your system’s admin is manually installing patches, getting them in the wrong order can cause all sorts of problems. Manually installing the Servicing Stack Update can be particularly vexing because SSUs won’t show up until you’ve installed (or hidden) all outstanding patches.

Server 2012 (not R2) reboots

There were lots of reports of Server 2012 (not R2) servers going into reboot loops after last month’s updates. I originally reported on AskWoody that the problem appeared to be with KB 4533096, the “Security and Quality Rollup for .NET Framework 3.5, 4.5.2, 4.6, 4.6.1, 4.6.2, 4.7, 4.7.1, 4.7.2, 4.8 for Windows Server 2012.” But I now think that a bad Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT) version may have been at fault.

Manually rebooting cleared up the issue. And the mid-December version of MSRT is long gone. There’s no official confirmation or explanation that I can find.

Win10 version 1909 bugs continue

The December patch didn’t fix the long-decried File Explorer Search bug in Win10 version 1909. You may recall that Microsoft’s known about the bug – which makes Search in File Explorer unusable – since 1909 shipped. They fixed the bug in a Win10 version 2004 beta test version

Microsoft still hasn’t confirmed the bug in the official Release Information Status page. I’ve seen Twitter threads where Microsoft employees claim no knowledge of the problem – in spite of the fact that the bug’s been reported over and over again in many different places (including the Feedback Hub) for months. @navh2009 nails it:

“If they are going to keep half baking these new changes, then they should stop making changes to things [that] were never broken. File Explorer search didn’t need windows search. Delete key still doesn’t work. How does basic functionality like this get forgotten every time?”

@railmeat goes on to say:

“These kinds of problems reoccur [due] to inadequate testing. These should be found in regression and functionality testing. Microsoft has the resources to do that testing, but apparently chooses not to.”

@abbodi86 has an explanation:

“In 1909, the upper bar of File Explorer (address + search box) no longer belongs to the Win32 platform. It’s a hybrid WinRT (UWP) feature. It’s half-baked, ugly, slow, and requires some prerequisite tasks to even semi-function (clipboard and other services including the MsCtfMonitor task schedule).”

I still recommend that folks avoid 1909 for precisely this reason.

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2020: The year the office finds its voice?

While voice-based digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Assistant are becoming increasingly common at home – and smartphones and wearables can be used  handsfree via speech – the use of voice in the workplace is just getting started.

That’s likely to change in 2020 and beyond.

The promise of voice in the workplace? More efficient employees, “smarter” voice-based assistants, easier ways of completing routine tasks and a digital experience in the office that matches what’s used at home.

A survey by 451 Research in 2019 indicated that voice UIs and digital assistants are among the most disruptive technologies for enterprises (IoT and AI are the top two), with four in 10 respondents planning to adopt voice technology within 24 months.

“I expect 2020 will be the year when voice user interfaces will become prevalent in the workplace,” said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, a senior analyst at 451 Research. “They will initially address simple tasks, but this will lay the groundwork for increasingly complex workflows.”

At first, voice assistants are likely to be used at work much as they are at home, such as starting phone calls, setting reminders and scheduling calendar events. But more workplace-specific uses are arriving quickly as software vendors integrate voice capabilities into their products.

Voice AI for office productivity

Microsoft recently announced that Cortana – now firmly positioned as a workplace rather than consumer AI assistant – will integrate with its Outlook mobile app, enabling users to dictate messages and request emails to be read aloud. Google, meanwhile, has begun to integrate its Assistant with G Suite calendars, allowing users to check schedules via voice commands, schedule events, send emails to certain contacts and dial in to meetings.

Although these are relatively straightforward tasks, they will get more workers interacting via voice, given the reach of Office 365 and G Suite in the corporate world.

In addition, voice assistants are being embedded in hardware designed explicitly for the office, making it easier for businesses to deploy. Amazon’s Alexa for Business is now embedded in Poly’s conference phones and headsets, while Microsoft’s Cortana is integrated into its Surface earbuds.

Wider availability of voice technology on productivity applications and devices will influence adoption, said Castañón-Martínez. “This will reinforce the familiarity of voice user interfaces in the workplace, in a similar way as consumers have become familiar with Alexa and Siri, and with smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home/Nest.”

Wider access to voice AI advances

While conversational AI tools such as chatbots are now common, voice interfaces have been slower to arrive, according to Hayley Sutherland, a senior research analyst at IDC. But advances  in the underlying natural language processing technology has made voice-based assistants  accurate enough to support regular interactions. 

“We’ve seen huge leaps in natural language processing, even in the last year,” she said.

That’s important because it means the assistants are less likely to misunderstand commands, which can quickly annoy users. “If I’m working with a voice assistant and it works 80% of the time, that remaining 20% is a lot in my day-to-day job; that can add up to a lot,” she said.

Although advances in natural language processing (NLP) usually come from big tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google with deep pockets for research and development, the availability of voice APIs gives more companies access to the technology. And those firms can create AI assistants better tailored to specific workplace scenarios. 

One example is commercial real estate firm JLL, which unveiled its own voice and text assistant, dubbed JiLL, last summer. The smart office assistant was built on Google Cloud, using the Dialogflow conversational AI platform. It helps employees locate and book spare desks, set up meetings with colleagues and more. 

“We wanted to bring the consumer experience to work,” JLL’s chief digital product officer, Vinay Goel, said in an earlier interview. “We think of JiLL as being the assistant that you have in your consumer life, whether through Alexa or Google Assistant, and we want to essentially recreate that experience with JiLL in the workplace.”

“Companies that previously didn’t have the resources to build this kind of capability themselves, or that said it is not their focus area, can now use third-party APIs to get their voice capabilities 75% of the way and customize from there,” said Sutherland. “So that could be another driver [of the technology].”

Privacy and security concerns remain

Another potential barrier to adoption involves privacy and security fears. 

In the past year, Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have each come under fire after reports that staff and contract workers were given access to small numbers of customer voice recordings for quality review.

According to a recent IDC survey, 44% of consumers have privacy and security concerns about the devices; those worries are likely to be higher when sensitive enterprise data is at risk. That’s especially pertinent as voice interfaces are added to business applications, such as software from the likes of Salesforce and Oracle. 

Oracle was keen to highlight its stringent management of customer voice data when it announced speech inputs for its Digital Assistant in September. 

“Customers don’t want their data going to public cloud vendors, or, more specifically, being accessed or listened to by third-party vendors,” Suhas Uliyar, Oracle’s vice president of AI and Oracle Digital Assistant, said in an interview at the time. “In our instance, the privacy and security is maintained. Only our customers have access to their data. 

“We don’t use it to retrain our models: that’s very important for GDPR,” Uliyar said. “And while we store it in the Oracle second-generation cloud infrastructure, we at Oracle don’t touch it.”

Allaying customer concerns will be key to growth and an on-going priority for companies offering voice interfaces to business applications, said Castañón-Martínez.

“The single key barrier that has limited widespread adoption is security,” he said. “To enable complex workflows using voice commands will require some form of device and user authentication. This remains a hurdle, as this will be required to enable interactions with sensitive company resources such as data and business applications.”

From simple to advanced tasks

While there may be resistance to using voice AI assistants in busy offices (for practical reasons), office workers on the go or staffers not bound to a desk could find them especially useful. 

“Those industries where people need to use their hands a lot is where we’ll see it first and where it will have a more natural kind of adoption,” said Sutherland. “It could be a lot more natural for field workers, and the efficiencies that they gain could mean it is an easier kind of adoption.”

The healthcare industry is one area that sees promise for voice-based assistants. A variety of startups in the industry have attracted venture capital investment, including Seattle-based Saykara, which uses speech recognition to input information into electronic health record systems. This frees doctors from burdensome data-entry requirements.

“Physicians spend on average about two hours on screen time for every hour that they are seeing patients,” Harjinder Sandhu, CEO of Saykara, said in an earlier interview. “They are either doing this while they are seeing patients — typing away at their computer — or else they are spending hours in the evenings trying to document that care.”

Also developing  services in this area: Google, which recently partnered with healthcare digital assistant startup Suki, and Microsoft, which announced it will work with a longstanding player in the market, Nuance.

Meetings are another area where voice assistants have proven popular, with Cisco’s Webex Assistant and Alexa for Business letting users kick off conference calls with voice commands, for instance.  

Meeting room assistants could get more advanced, with the ability to search for information likely to be a key use during a meeting. 

“If you are a CEO or a CFO making a presentation, you could just query Alexa or Cortana ‘What were the sales for the third quarter for the east region,’ something like that,” said Castañón-Martínez. “That could mean a very sophisticated workflow that would know who is asking the question, the information that they are asking for, the different sources where that information can be obtained, and then retrieving it and presenting it in a coherent way using natural language.

“That, in my mind, will be the next step – and will pave the way for more complex workflows,” he said.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Office 365 on Windows 7 gets free patches until 2023

Customers who continue to power PCs with Windows 7 after the operating system’s expiration date will be given one more update to Office 365 ProPlus – the application soul of the subscription service – before shutting down the feature pipeline.

But Office 365 ProPlus – the application stack that’s part of most business plans – will receive security updates long after Windows 7’s retirement on Jan. 14. How long after? Three years after.

The arrangement – “no” to new features but “yes” to vulnerability patches – was unusual enough to upend the typical definition of “support.”

“Office 365 ProPlus won’t be supported on Windows 7 after January 14, 2020,” Microsoft plainly stated in a support document last revised less than two weeks ago.

So, ProPlus is not supported but it will receive patches? Huh?

The contradiction about support is the source of confusion. Most users, whether of Microsoft’s operating system and applications or of any kind of software, hear the word support and equate it with fixes and patches. Software in support receives updates that quash bugs and fix problems, software out of support does not.

Yet Microsoft says that Office 365 ProPlus “won’t be supported” on Windows 7 even though it will continue to deliver security updates to the suite.

Again, what the hell?

First, a bit of background

Normally, when Microsoft axes an operating system – and stops patching its security vulnerabilities – it halts updates to other Microsoft-made software running under that OS at the same time. So, for example, when Microsoft set Windows 7’s end-of-support calendar at Jan. 14, 2020, that meant Office 365 ProPlus – or any Office – would also stop receiving updates then. (It works like this for Microsoft’s browsers, Internet Explorer (IE) and Edge, too.)

But Microsoft upset that cart when it announced Extended Security Updates (ESU) in September 2018. A “last resort” – Microsoft’s words – for commercial customers who would not make the Jan. 14, 2020, deadline for purging Windows 7, ESU would provide Critical- and Important-rated vulnerability patches to out-of-support Windows 7 machines. For a price, of course.

When Microsoft extended Windows 7’s security update support, it also had to extend that of Office 365 ProPlus (or make those Windows 7 PCs worthless for common productivity chores). And remember, customers were paying money to remain in support. And that’s what the company did.

“Office 365 ProPlus will be supported on devices with active Windows 7 Extended Security Updates (ESU) through January 2023,” Jared Spataro, vice president for Microsoft 365, said in a post to a company blog. “This means that customers who purchase the Windows 7 ESU will be able to continue to run Office 365 ProPlus.”

With a few keystrokes, Spataro committed Microsoft to providing patches to Office 365 ProPlus for three years after Windows 7 retirement.

Here’s what is to happen

Microsoft upgrades Office 365 ProPlus, like Windows 10, twice a year, in the late summer (around August) and the late winter or early spring (February or March). But Windows 7 users will get just one in 2020.

“Version 2002 is expected to be the last version of Office 365 ProPlus that will be available for devices running Windows 7 after Windows 7 goes out of support in January 2020,” Microsoft said in the support document.  (As with Windows 10, Microsoft tags Office 365 ProPlus with a four-digit label in the form yymm, so 2002 indicates a February 2020 release.)

Office 365 ProPlus, with its three different “channels” or distribution milestones, will upgrade to 2002 on this timeline, according to Microsoft:

  • Monthly Channel … late February
  • Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) … March
  • Semi-Annual Channel … July

Once Office 365 ProPlus version 2002 is in place on Windows 7 systems, no future upgrades will be allowed onto the machines. Microsoft made that clear. “If you try to install a newer version of Office 365 ProPlus, such as Version 2005, on a device running Windows 7, you will receive an error message,” Microsoft said.

But monthly security updates will keep on coming through January 2023. (That month should be familiar; it’s the end of Windows 7’s ESU program.)

“We’re doing this to give you additional time to make the transition from running Office 365 ProPlus on devices running Windows 7 to a supported operating system, such as Windows 10,” Microsoft said, giving a reason if not necessarily the reason. Left unsaid, naturally, is the fact that once ESU came into existence, Microsoft had to continue patching Office 365 ProPlus, at least for those covered by the pay-for-patches plan.

Even though a specific ProPlus channel is usually available just for 14 months, version 2002 will be accessible to Windows 7 customers for much longer. How much longer? Remember, until January 2023.

“We’re making ((this)) exception just for Version 2002 to align with how long ESU for Windows 7 is available,” Microsoft said, coming clean.

On PCs powered by Windows 7, Office 365 ProPlus will be updated automatically to 2002 if those devices are getting updates directly from Microsoft’s servicing mechanism, Windows Update. If the PC is later migrated to Windows 10, ProPlus will automatically transition to the most recent available version. From that point, the machine will start receiving new feature-and-functionality upgrades, too.

Enterprises that manage ProPlus via, say, WSUS (Windows Server Update Services) or SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager) can continue to use their familiar tools.

Microsoft also said that Office 365 Business – the name for the application bundle offered with some subscriptions, including Office 365 Business Premium and Microsoft 365 Business – will be serviced on Windows 7 in the same way as ProPlus.

What about home users?

They, too, will get security updates to their Office 365 applications, according to a different support article Microsoft highlighted.

“As a valuable Office 365 subscriber, we want to continue to provide a stable Office 365 experience,” Microsoft stated on that page. “Even though Windows 7 will no longer be supported after January 2020, we’ve decided to continue to provide you with security updates for Office 365 for the next 3 years, until January 2023.”

You get patches … and you get patches

Everyone running Windows 7 after Jan. 14 will continue to get patches for Office 365’s applications – Word, Excel and the rest – for up to three years. The OS may be out of support (there’s that word again) and at risk from criminal exploitation, but Office itself will be safe.

Although few will look this gift horse in the mouth and object, it’s odd that Microsoft would give away Office security updates when it’s charging for the same thing for Windows 7.

But no one said Microsoft’s moves were logical.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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This month’s Windows and Office security patches: Bugs and solutions

What a relief. The only major patching problem for November came from Office, not Windows. We had a handful of completely inscrutable patches – including two .NET non-security previews that apparently did nothing – but that’s the worst of it.

November saw the last security patch for Win10 version 1803. Win10 version 1909 got released, gently. We also had a much-hyped “exploited” zero-day security hole in Internet Explorer (again) that didn’t amount to a hill of beans (again).

As promised, we received no “optional, non-security” Windows 10 patches in November – and Microsoft promises there won’t be any this month, either. I think that’s great. If Microsoft wants to roll out beta test versions of Windows, it should have testers sign up for an Insider ring.

About those buggy Office patches

All of the Office patches in November throw a “Query is corrupt” error message in Access under certain circumstances. Access says “Query xxxx is corrupt,” when in fact the query in question is just fine.

corrupt query dialogue Microsoft

 I talked about the bug on Nov. 13. Microsoft finally acknowledged it almost a week later.

Microsoft rolled out a patch for Access 2016 on Nov. 18, but didn’t get the other installed (“MSI”) versions patched until Nov. 27. We’re still waiting for patches to the Click-to-Run versions of Office, which are currently scheduled for Dec. 10 – the next Patch Tuesday.

Inscrutable .NET previews

Along with Win7 and 8.1 Monthly Rollup previews, we were also graced with four optional preview .NET patches – two of which don’t appear to do anything – and a group of one-off patches (not cumulative updates), available by manual download only, to fix a weird bug in ClickOnce.

In short, there weren’t any .NET patches in November worth the distraction.

Another ‘exploit’ fizzle

Speaking of distractions…, November saw a fix for an “exploited” security hole, CVE-2019-1429. The parallels to September’s CVE-2019-1367 are hard to ignore. Like -1367, -1429 is a “Scripting Engine Memory Corruption Vulnerability” that is known (by Microsoft) to be used in some sort of attack. Like the earlier doppelganger, this new incarnation hits Internet Explorer directly, but can be leveraged by an aberrant Office document that links to IE. Both exploits seem full of sound and fury – 800 million Windows users exposed! Hurry and get patched! Click here! – but in the end, neither leaked into the wild.

There’s one big difference between the old -1367 and the new -1429: Microsoft didn’t start flailing around like a beached whale this time. If you recall, the September hole was subject to four – count ‘em, four – different out-of-band updates, poorly conceived and worse implemented. Local news broadcasts predicted the Windows sky was falling. Meh.

My advice then – and now – is to ignore the “exploited” designation, stop using Internet Explorer, set any other browser as your default, and read up on False Authority Syndrome (thanks, Rob).

Win10 version 1909, not yet ready for prime time

If you’re thinking about moving on to Win10 version 1909, make sure you weigh the benefits (are there any real benefits?) against the problems. Several bugs in Win10 1903 are running over into 1909, and 1909 has a handful of its own:

It remains to be seen whether there are any 1909-specific bugs. But it also remains to be seen whether there are any real benefits to moving to 1909.

Choose your version of Win10

Those of you running Win10 1809 Home may be distressed to discover that, unless you take significant steps to prevent it, Microsoft now upgrades your machine to version 1909, not 1903. That may be what you want – if so, I salute you! – but moving to Win10 1903 now gives you the opportunity to choose when you’ll get pushed onto 1909.

In fact, if you’re running Win10 version 1803 or 1809 (or don’t know what version you’re running!), there’s a relatively easy way to make sure you end up on the version you want. Full step-by-step instructions are here in, Running Win10 version 1803 or 1809? You have options. Here’s how to control your upgrade.

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Microsoft touts Edge’s new tab page connection to Office 365

Microsoft’s not-quite-ready-for-prime-time browser, the Edge built atop Google’s technologies, will feature an enterprise-centric new tab page, one that IT administrators can customize for employees.

The Redmond, Wash. developer outlined Edge’s new tab page capabilities for corporate customers a week after it announced the first release candidate” of the browser.

“When signed in with an Azure Active Directory (AAD) work account, opening a new tab in Microsoft Edge delivers a dynamic and personalized set of your most relevant Office documents, internal web sites, company resources, and other Microsoft 365 content,” Chad Rothschiller, senior program manager, and Matt Betz, product marketing manager, said in a Nov. 12 post to a company blog.

Absent IT intervention through the setting of group policies, Edge in an enterprise will look and work just as on a consumer’s PC, complete with a new tab page fleshed out from a feed of general news. But plug in GPOs (group policy objects) and the browser becomes a front end for Office 365, Microsoft’s productivity software and service subscription.

edge new tab page Microsoft

Office 365 users who log in to Edge through an Azure Active Directory account may see a new tab page integrated with the productivity suite and its services, from IT-mandated quick-click tiles to documents likely to need attention.

Each enterprise new tab page will boast eight thumbnails of selected sites, the first three of which can be set by IT (and set so that they cannot be changed by workers). Those sites might be important intranet pages or mission-critical web apps specific to the company at large, a department or team, or even the individual. The remaining five thumbnails – Edge allows only for one row of eight – will be based on frequently accessed sites or created by the device user, as is typical for other browsers’ new tab pages.

(More information about the NewTabPageManagedQuickLinks policy that sets the first three thumbnails is available here.)

Other areas of the new tab page perform Office 365 landing page duties, the most notable of which, dubbed “Recommended,” culls from recently-worked spreadsheets or collaborated-with-others Word docs or such like from signals derived from the user’s interactions with the productivity applications and others in her company or team. Documents surfaced to Recommended must be stored in OneDrive for Business or SharePoint sites, not surprising since those are the two cloud storage choices for virtually all Office 365 corporate customers.

Below that, other Office 365 content is listed and access to SharePoint’s intranet sites posted. Various views let users filter for pinned files or those, say, that have been received as email attachments.

The whole look and feel is very much akin to what an Office 365 user sees when steering to www.office.com in any browser, Edge included. The fact that Edge offers it on every new tab page makes for one less chore during a workday or, depending on how one sees the ever-present presence of Microsoft in the office, tiresome.

Microsoft, of course, views it as the former. “((The new tab page’s)) Recommended Documents feature is the ‘magic’ that surfaces what you need most,” contended Rothschiller and Betz. “It is the intelligence that monitors all file activity and uses machine learning to produce a short list of files, saving you time and allowing you to pick up right where you left off.”

Also integrated with Office 365 is the search field on the new tab page. When the user logs in to an AAD account, searches bring results of not only the web in general, but also organization-specific information, such as documents (again, those stored in OneDrive for Business or on a SharePoint site), personnel and intranet sites hosting line-of-business web apps.

Rothschiller and Betz called out manageability – no shock there, as that has historically been a strength of Microsoft-made browsers – but didn’t compare Edge with Chrome, the former’s foe as well as its forerunner. It might have been a missed opportunity, as Chrome is not equipped to sport an enterprise-specific new tab page (presumably one linked to its G Suite) nor able to somehow integrate with Office 365.

Edge’s first Stable build – production-ready, in other words – is set to launch Jan. 15. Until then, commercial users and IT administrators can kick the tires of the Beta, which can be downloaded from here for Windows and macOS.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Microsoft starts releasing fixes for Access bugs introduced in Office security patches this month

Although we’ve been promised no “C” or “D” week second cumulative updates for the rest of the year — at least for Windows — Microsoft has acknowledged a bug it created in last week’s Patch Tuesday Office patches, and now promises that it’ll update the bad fixes on most machines this week or next. Those are “C” week and “D” week, respectively.

The cause du jour: a bug in all of this month’s Office security patches that throws an error in Access saying, “Query xxxx is corrupt,” when in fact the query in question is just fine. Microsoft describes the erroneous error message on its Office Support site:

query is corrupt Woody Leonhard/IDG

When attempting to run an Update query, it may not run and displays the error: “Query ‘query name’ is corrupt”. 

This will occur for an Update query that:

  • Updates a single table (i.e. it updates a table, rather than the output of a Select query, or join
  • Specifies a WHERE clause (i.e. has entries in the Criteria row in the query designer)

This issue impacts all supported builds of Access.

The issue was introduced on November 12, 2019

It’s the same bug I discussed in Woody on Windows on Nov. 13. It just took Microsoft a week to acknowledge the error.

There’s a new cumulative update for Office 2016 (the installed version, not the Click-to-Run) released yesterday, KB 4484198, that claims to fix the bug. According to Microsoft, we should expect to see similar fixes for Access 2010, 2013, and Office 365 (the Click-to-Run version 1911) this Friday, Nov. 22. The fix for Office 365 Semi-Annual channel (version 1901) is due next Monday, and Volume Licensees won’t get the bug erased until Dec. 10. Which is why you pay for a Volume License, right?

Günter Born also reports that Access 2016 Click-to-Run has already been fixed, with build 12130.20390, according to a German-language post. 

Stuck with Access? Join us on AskWoody.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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The 7 Best Office Gadgets to Aid Your Creativity

It doesn’t matter what profession you’re in, everyone suffers from a creative slowdown from time-to-time. If you’re struggling to see the way forward in whatever project you’re working on, one solution is to fill your office space things that’ll help to get your creative juices flowing.

Want to learn more? Keep reading. We’re going to round up seven of the best office gadgets to aid creativity.

Hidrate Spark 3

Hidrate Spark 3

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Drinking plenty of water has numerous benefits from a creativity standpoint. Endless studies have shown that it can reduce tiredness, improve your mood, sharpen your focus, increase your memory span, aid your memory recall, help you think more clearly, and a whole lot more.

So, why do so few of us drink the recommended amount of water in a day? One way to stay on top of your intake is to use the Hidrate Spark 3. It will track your consumption in an app, issue alerts if you fall behind, sync with other activity trackers you own, and light up to remind you that it’s time to take a sip.

SMY Blue Light Therapy Energy Lamp

SMY Blue Light Therapy Energy Lamp

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Another criminally underappreciated aspect of creativity is lighting. A study by the US National Library of Medicine found that people who worked in places that were devoid of natural light suffered from lower quality sleep and higher instances of depression, anxiety, and even delirium. A second study jointly published by Microsoft and Cornell University found that exposure to blue light boosted creativity.

So, why not use those two facts to your advantage? The SMY Blue Light Therapy Energy Lamp mimics a bright, sunny day with a 10,000-lux output. There are two levels of brightness and an automatic shutoff timer.

DRAGONN Ergonomic Kneeling Chair

DRAGONN Ergonomic Kneeling Chair

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We all know that sitting in a bad position is terrible for our posture. But did you know it can also indirectly hinder your creativity?

A paper from the University of Nevada showed that if you sit hunched over, you are limiting the ability of your thorax and rib cage to expand during breathing. In turn, that decreases the amount of oxygen in the lungs and your bloodstream. Less oxygen in the blood impairs your focus and reduces productivity and creativity.

So, why not try the DRAGONN Ergonomic Kneeling Chair? It has a tilted seat that promotes a better back posture, improves abdominal strength, and distributes your body weight across your buttocks and legs.

Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

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Creativity, Inc was published in 2014 and quickly became a bestseller. Written by the former president of Pixar, Edwin Catmull, it details the creative processes within Disney that led to some of the company’s most popular animations of recent times, including The Incredibles, Toy Story, Cars, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E.

The book ostensibly focuses on the movie industry. However, its real strength is in detailing how creativity can be grown and engendered within any workplace. If you want to be creative in life, the book is a must-read. It is available in paperback, hardback, Kindle, and audiobook formats.

BBabe Desktop Waterfall Fountain

BBabe Desktop Waterfall Fountain

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In turns out that it’s not just drinking water that can boost your creativity. In his book Blue Mind, author Wallace J. Nichols argued that merely being close to water can help to unblock your brain.

Here’s how The Washington Post described the book in its review:

‘Blue Mind’ is a fascinating study of the emotional, behavioral, psychological and physical connections that keep humans so enchanted with water. Nichols examines seas and oceans, lakes and rivers, even swimming pools and the contents of our bathtubs. The study is both highly readable and rooted in real research. Nichols draws on science and art, hard data and anecdote, and plenty of experience, to explain our blue mind in detail.

Therefore, the second water-themed item on our list is the BBabe Desktop Waterfall Fountain. It has four levels, built-in LED accent lights, and a quiet pump that won’t irritate your colleagues. Best of all, the fountain measures just 10 x 9 x 7 inches, so it will fit comfortably on your desk.

Guardian Technologies True HEPA Filter

Guardian Technologies True HEPA Filter

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Another proven aspect of being more creative is to make sure you’re breathing clean air. Ideally, that means getting out into the world of nature for a lengthy walk every day. Sadly, however, most bosses are unlikely to be receptive to your idea of disappearing into the wilderness for several hours on company time.

Instead, you can try to use the Guardian Technologies True HEPA Filter to keep the air in your working area as fresh as possible. It’s a three-in-one air purifier that can remove 99 percent of germs, dust, pet hair, mold spores, and other allergens. It kills germs using a UV C light, odors are removed with active charcoal, and larger particles go through the changeable filter. It can work effectively in rooms up to 167 square feet.

Bose QuietComfort 35 II Headphones

Bose QuietComfort 35 II Headphones

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Offices can be noisy places. Gossiping coworkers, whirring printers, droning air conditioning systems, ringing telephones—there are far too many distractions for you to be able to maintain your focus and concentration for any serious length of time.

And all that noise is a drag on your creativity. A study by a biologist at Duke University found that silence is vital for the health of your brain. It helps cell development in the hippocampus. That’s the part of your brain that’s responsible for consolidating both short- and long-term memory, as well as managing your senses.

So, how can you shut out all that office noise? One solution could be to invest in a pair of high-quality noise-canceling headphones, such as the Bose QuietComfort 35 II. Not only will they filter out the sound, but they are also Alexa-enabled and can pair with your existing devices via Bluetooth.

If you want to know more about the headphones, make sure to check out our review of the Bose QuietComfort 35 II.

The Best Gadgets for Creativity

There’s not one single thing that can magically turn you into a creative powerhouse. But if you add some of the devices we’ve discussed in this list to your workspace, you’re sure to see some notable improvements.

If you’d like more tips about how to become more creative, check out the best gadgets that every creative person needs to carry

12 Gadgets Every Creative Person Should Carry at All Times

12 Gadgets Every Creative Person Should Carry at All Times

Here’s a variety of small gadgets that’ll boost your creativity and productivity. Hopefully they’ll all help to make your life a little easier.
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at all times.

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