If you use Microsoft highly popular Office 365 ProPlus, and Google's highly popular Chrome browser, you (and your employees) may be in for a big surprise in the coming weeks. That's because the latest update to Office 365 will automatically install an extension that resets your default search engine in Chrome from Google to Microsoft's search engine Bing.
How many people are likely to be affected? Microsoft recently reported that Office 365 commercial now has 155 million users worldwide, though it doesn't break out how many of those are ProPlus users. Still, if those users are in line with general market trends, about two thirds of their browsing happens in Chrome, and about 90 percent of their searching happens in Google. Microsoft isn't rolling out this extension worldwide, at least for now. Users in the United States, Canada, the UK, Germany, France, India, and Australia are the only ones getting the extension at this time. Still, it's safe to say that the change will affect tens of millions of people, and some of them will not be expecting it.
Judging from the responses of those who do know about it, they're likely to be displeased. The move has already been widely panned on social media.
Microsoft Office 365 ProPlus will switch Chrome users' default search to Bing. Cue outrage from customers and IT administrators who see this as search hijacking. https://t.co/uHdEsNfMYT-- Stephen Shankland (@stshank) January 22, 2020
Other Twitter users skipped right past "search hijacking" and called Office 365 "malware" for installing unwanted software on their devices. And then there's this...
Besides raising predictable amounts of ire, the move is somewhat reminiscent of Microsoft's insistence that its Windows operating system come with its own web browser Internet Explorer, a decision which led to the landmark 1998 lawsuit in which the Justice Department accused Microsoft of being a monopoly, and a U.S. district court ordered the company to be broken up. Microsoft filed an appeal and then reached a settlement with the DOJ. Microsoft is still bundling its own web browser with Windows of course, but switching millions of users from their chosen search engine to Bing without asking permission first is something else again. It's a play right out of the company's bad old monopolistic days.
Why did Microsoft do it? Well, the company is anything but a monopoly when it comes to browsers or search, particularly search, where its global market share is less than 5 percent. Some Bing fans say that the search engine is at least as good as Google; Microsoft may be hoping that once it's made users try it by brute force, they'll stick around of their own free will. Microsoft has also put a lot of effort into recasting Bing as an internal search engine for companies and the company says by switching to Bing, users will get the usual results from the web, coupled with results from internal web pages and documents. That might indeed be very handy, but it still doesn't make it OK to force Microsoft 365 users to switch to Bing whether they want to or not.
You'll need executable code to get rid of it.
Microsoft seems to be somewhat aware of this. At least, that's my guess as to why the announcement of the change came with plenty of information about how to get out of it -- which isn't as easy as it should be. There are instructions for IT administrators to prevent the installation using various Microsoft tools, along with a warning that if you do these things after the new update has already been installed, they won't help you.
Once it's installed, an administrator can remove it from a company or team's computers by running some executable code Microsoft has provided. Individual users can switch back to Google by using the "Edit search engines" function in Chrome. But, apparently, they can only remove the extension altogether by using the Control Panel in Windows. Unlike every other Chrome extension, it may not be removable within Chrome's own settings. Some Reddit users opined that Google should retaliate by setting the default font in Outlook to something odd-looking, such as Papyrus, or nonsensical, such as Wing Dings. And really, if Google did that, you couldn't blame them.
But perhaps the nerviest thing about this extremely nervy change is that, since Microsoft is imposing its internal/external search engine on users, it's offered the helpful suggestion that both top executives and IT leaders spend a lot of time and effort carefully preparing their employees for this change that they neither wanted nor asked for. Assuming, I guess, that company leaders and their IT execs have oodles of free time, Microsoft helpfully lays out a four-step "User Adoption Guide" for Microsoft Search in Bing. This instructs the company to involve all stakeholders, including the business owner, executives, editors, a search administrator, and the IT change management team. It also says to find an executive-level sponsor for the change and other employees who will be its champions and "evangelize" about it. It doesn't say what to do if you can't find anyone who wants to sponsor Bing or evangelize about it.
That's just Stage 1. Later stages include coming up with search scenarios to share with users, setting metrics to track the new search engine's success, putting out pamphlets and posters, helping users sign in to Bing, and on and on. There's even a zipped file you can download with email templates and customizable posters that you can print out.
So there are your choices. Install Office 365 ProPlus as delivered, and spend a lot of time and effort printing out posters to explain to your users why the search engine they've been using for years suddenly isn't there anymore. Or deploy executable code into your system to prevent it from happening. Or, just maybe, skip Office 365 ProPlus altogether, and go find some productivity software from a company that doesn't feel entitled to dictate which search engine you use.
I've reached out to Microsoft for comment. If they respond, I will update this piece.