Understanding Office 365 Update Channels

Transitioning Between Channels and Customizing Installations with Office 365 Update Channels

We all know how much Microsoft loves updates and changes, but most of us in the real world have a love-hate relationship regarding the never-ending deluge. I recently dealt with a client whose line-of-business software lost all Microsoft Office compatibility after they were automatically updated to the most recent update.

When it comes to Office 365, you cannot simply roll back or uninstall an update; instead, Office updates are distributed based on the update channel to which the system (or organization) is subscribed. For my client, the fix for their issue was to simply switch the update channel to semi-annual, which rolled them back to the last major version and restored the connection between their application and MS Office.

In this article, I will discuss how to make changes at the individual and organization level so that you can make sure your updates are working the way that is best for you and your organization. Microsoft is changing the way these updates work coming June 9, 2020, so we will discuss the upcoming changes as well. First, let’s cover the basics:

What are the update channels for O365 desktop applications?

Monthly Channel: This is the “Current Channel” version, the default set by Microsoft, and the most updated. New updates are applied as soon as they are available, and with no set schedule.

Monthly Channel (Targeted): Previously called the “Insiders” build, now called the “Current Channel Preview” build. This channel features a preview of the next monthly channel release. Good for testing the next Monthly Channel update.

Semi-Annual Channel: This is the “Broad” or “Deferred” channel. It pushes minor updates once a month on the second Tuesday but receives feature updates only twice a year in January and July. I recommend this for those of you who want to avoid major updates and stay on the oldest supported build.

Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted): This is the “Preview” track for the semi-annual build. Although it is still updated with major feature updates only twice a year, it is a version ahead of the deferred channel.

Beta Channel: Also called the “Insider Fast” build, this is the experimental beta version of the Office365 suite. Recommended only for those that love testing the bleeding edge.

Monthly Enterprise Channel: This is the newest channel, added May 12th, 2020. Updates are applied monthly on a regular schedule. New feature updates are available monthly and are available on the second Tuesday of each month.

Here’s what Microsoft has to say about the different channel options.

How do we configure a default O365 update channel?

When you download Office 365 desktop applications and install using default settings, Microsoft will install the “Current Channel” unless you have manually changed the default for your organization or are using the Office Deployment Tool to specify a different version.

From Microsoft’s Official Guide:

Microsoft 365 Admin Center

If you allow your users to install Office for themselves from the portal, you can specify which update channel they install. To do that, sign in to the Microsoft 365 admin center with your admin account, go to Show all > Settings > Org settings > Services > Office software download settings, and then choose the appropriate update channel for your users. This setting applies to all users in your tenant and only applies to users that install Office for themselves from the portal.

Note: This will not affect anyone who has already installed their O365 apps. This setting only affects new installations and assumes that the user is running the setup file downloaded from the organization’s Office tenant.

Group Policy

You can download the Administrative Template files (ADMX/ADML) and enable the Update Channel policy setting. When you enable the policy setting, you can select the appropriate update channel from a drop-down list. You can find this policy setting under Computer Configuration\Policies\Administrative Templates\Microsoft Office 2016 (Machine)\Updates.

Note: This is assuming that Group Policy is working without any issues. If Group Policy is not working, or if the user’s system is not able to get the latest Group Policy updates, then obviously this will not work.

Office Deployment Tool

You can use the Office Deployment Tool and specify the Channel attribute in your configuration file. There is a Channel attribute available in the Add element and in the Updates element. For more information, see Configuration options for the Office Deployment Tool.

Note: The Office Deployment Tool (Download here!) works best when combined with a fresh custom XML designed intelligently by YOU using the official Microsoft Office Customization Tool.

How can we actively change our O365 Suite update channel?

If you follow through with the instructions above and get your default straightened out, then you’ve won half the battle. If you want to switch to the new default within the Admin Center, you will need to uninstall Office then reinstall using the new setup file from your tenant. Microsoft recommends uninstalling first, so I cannot say for sure whether it works fine doing an in-place upgrade.

If you have configured the Group Policy described above, the change should be automatic to your users assuming Group Policy is working properly. After a gpupdate /force you should see background processes upgrading the Office version.

If you want to manage these changes manually and don’t want to change your organization default in O365, then you will need to familiarize yourself with the Office Deployment Tool. First download the tool, then visit this aforementioned site and complete the wizard to create your custom-tailored XML file.

Here is an example XML file that I used for an “in-place upgrade” from Monthly Channel to Semi-Annual:

<Configuration ID=”xxxxxxx-xxxx-xxxx-xxxx-xxxxxxxxxxxx”>

  <Add OfficeClientEdition=”32″ Channel=”Broad“>

    <Product ID=”O365BusinessRetail”>

      <Language ID=”en-us” />

      <ExcludeApp ID=”Groove” />

    </Product>

  </Add>

  <Property Name=”SharedComputerLicensing” Value=”0″ />

  <Property Name=”PinIconsToTaskbar” Value=”TRUE” />

  <Property Name=”SCLCacheOverride” Value=”0″ />

  <Property Name=”AUTOACTIVATE” Value=”0″ />

  <Property Name=”FORCEAPPSHUTDOWN” Value=”TRUE” />

  <Property Name=”DeviceBasedLicensing” Value=”0″ />

  <Updates Enabled=”TRUE” />

  <Updates Channel=”Broad” />

</Configuration>

 

Note: For more information on the “Updates Channel” property, keep reading…

To install (or in-place upgrade) Office using the Deployment Tool, close out all Office apps, copy your XML into the ODT’s folder, then simply open an administrative command prompt, and run:

setup.exe /configure custom.xml

When done correctly, this will keep all your settings, Outlook profiles, file history, etc. and simply reinstall the Office applications so that you are using the desired update channel. As always, test this on a standard workstation within your organization before working with the CEO. 😊

What is changing (or has already changed) in 2020?

Starting May 12, 2020, Microsoft changed the official names of the update channels and the update channel attributes. Although this may cause confusion, not much is changing from a practical standpoint.

From Microsoft’s Official Page:

 

Update channel New XML attribute value Previous XML attribute value
Beta Channel BetaChannel InsiderFast
Current Channel (Preview) CurrentPreview Insiders
Current Channel Current Monthly
Monthly Enterprise Channel MonthlyEnterprise
Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel (Preview) SemiAnnualPreview Targeted
Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel SemiAnnual Broad

 

  • You can start using the MonthlyEnterprise attribute value on May 12, 2020. The most current version of the Office Deployment Tool is available on the Microsoft Download Center and supports using that new value.
  • You can start using the other new attribute values on June 9, 2020 and you’ll need to download an updated version of the Office Deployment Tool on that day. That new version of the Office Deployment Tool will support those new values.
  • After June 9, 2020, previous attribute values for each update channel will still be valid. For example, if you use Broad in your configuration XML file, Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel will be installed. We’re keeping the previous attribute values valid so that you don’t have to update your existing configuration XML files.

Struggling with your Office 365 apps and configuration? Give us a call at 502-240-0404 or email us at info@mirazon.com!