You’ve probably never heard of Robert Adler, which is a shame. Holding more than 150 patents, Adler led the team that developed the first television remote control, enabling future generations to change channels without making the long trek from the sofa to the (giant console) TV and back again. We take channel changing for granted now, of course, and in fact the concept of “channels” has spread well beyond the original meaning, even seeping into the Office 365 world. In this article, we’ll talk about the update channel mechanism for Microsoft 365 Apps and how you can use it to effectively control which users have which versions of the apps and when, and how, those apps will be upgraded.

Microsoft 365 Apps feature rollout is complicated

In an on-premises world where we all bought software off the shelf at the local store, updates were simple: the vendor would burn a bunch of CDs or floppies, put them in flashy boxes, and then we’d buy them and install them. In today’s hybrid world, there are several additional steps that we’ll skip over in this discussion. At minimum, you need to remember that some features in Microsoft 365 Apps require support from various components of Microsoft 365, and those components all have their own release schedules. Client updates and service updates are coordinated through a horribly complicated process that means that not every client update can be used in every tenant in every region, so the pace of arrival for updates and the timing when you see a particular new feature light up in your tenant may vary widely.

Understanding the channel structure

Microsoft’s structure for providing updates to the Microsoft 365 Apps is pretty straightforward. They have a complex mechanism for testing new builds inside the company, then gradually promoting those builds to the outside world when they are judged ready for release. The timing and availability of releases varies between channels, as does the intended audience. Over the last couple of years, Microsoft has made minor adjustments to the structure but they seem happy with its present form.

The idea behind the channel structure is to provide a predictable mechanism to deliver three kinds of updates: feature updates (representing new features large and small), security updates, and non-security updates (what a layperson might call “bug fixes.”) Security and non-security updates aren’t downloadable separately. They’re released as cumulative updates as part of the release process, not as hotfixes that you can download and apply independently.

While security updates for all channels are normally released on Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of each month), Microsoft may occasionally release them at other times if there’s a serious issue that needs a faster fix. Feature and non-security updates will flow to users on a different schedule, according to the channel that their machines are in.  (When I say “machines,” keep in mind that these update channels only apply to Windows computers, not Android or iOS devices. There’s a very similar structure for macOS computers.)

There are five channels you need to know about:

  • Current Channel is where most users in most tenants will get their updates. Microsoft says they’ll do feature releases to this channel at least once a month, but there is no fixed timing for releases. One month this channel may see one release, and the next month there may be three. By default, all your users will go into this channel.
  • Current Channel (Preview) is an early release of the features planned for Current Channel. Typically, this channel gets an update the week before its scheduled release to Current Channel. If Microsoft finds bugs in a Current Channel (Preview) release, they will often do another release to the same channel (or several, depending on the bugs) to fix them before the release is promoted to Current Channel.
  • Monthly Enterprise has a predictable monthly release schedule: one update per month, issued on Patch Tuesday. Think of this channel as collecting updates previously released in Current Channel since the previous Monthly Enterprise release, then bundling it into a single update. One important thing to know is that the flow from Current Channel to Monthly Enterprise may not be immediate—when Microsoft rolls a feature out in Current Channel, it may need to reach a certain percentage of installed users before it’s promoted, or its deployment may require broad updates to a service component. Until a feature has been published to all Current Channel users, it won’t appear in Monthly Enterprise.
  • Semi-Annual Enterprise also has a predictable release schedule: the second Tuesday in January and July will see Semi-Annual Enterprise releases consisting of new features previously released to Monthly Enterprise, but only those features that have been made available to all Monthly Enterprise users. Security updates and bug fixes for this channel are released every month on Patch Tuesday.
  • Semi-Annual Enterprise (Preview) updates come on the second Tuesday of March and September—four months before the corresponding release to the “real” Semi-Annual Enterprise channel. If you want to assess new features that will be deployed to Semi-Annual Enterprise, this is your chance—but you may not need to actually do this, as you’ll see shortly.

Engage with Microsoft 365 experts like Paul Robichaux at The Experts Conference 2022 in Atlanta, GA September 20-21. Ask your questions 1:1, get hands-on in our M365 Management Shortcut Village, and network with peers!

Which Microsoft 365 Apps channels to use when

Having a list of five channels to choose from may seem confusing. Microsoft makes it very simple, though. Your whole enterprise should be on Current Channel unless one of two things is true:

  • You want only one feature update per month and/or you want the update to arrive at a predictable time, in which case you should use Monthly Enterprise.
  • You have a really, really good business reason not to update certain devices, in which case you can use Semi-Annual Enterprise. Microsoft’s actual language is “only for those select devices in your organization where extensive testing is needed before rolling out new Office features. For example, to comply with regulatory, governmental or other organizational requirements.”

That’s simple and straightforward, and it’s unchanged since the introduction of the Current / Monthly / Semi-Annual structure: for most users and organizations, Microsoft recommends using Current Channel to make sure that users get Microsoft 365 feature updates quickly. They claim that customers on a monthly update cadence “have reported higher satisfaction than those receiving semi-annual feature updates.” Left unstated is which customers reported this, who they reported it to, or how they did it (perhaps by tying an anonymous note to a brick and throwing it through the office window?).

What prompted this article

Channel assignment and update management is pretty much invisible for most users—and admins. Nothing, however, is invisible to the all-seeing eyes of the Office 365 telemetry engine. Microsoft recently published a change in Message Center message MC362760 warning some customers that their users would be assigned to Monthly Enterprise instead of to Semi-Annual Enterprise. Presumably, Microsoft used its telemetry to detect customers who had too many users on the semi-annual version (for whatever value of “too many” they chose), but they haven’t said publicly what metrics they used to determine that change. You can opt-out of this change by going to the notifications section in the Microsoft 365 Apps Admin center, choosing “view details” for the notification of the change, and choosing Keep my devices on current configuration. Note that you’ll only see this notification if you got the message center post—if you didn’t, then there’s no way for you to opt-out of the change but it doesn’t apply to you anyway.

Note that if you want to opt-out, you must do so before May 20, 2022. On that date, Microsoft is going to move your users, like it or not.

Getting app version and update data

The Apps Health pivot of the Microsoft 365 Apps Admin center will show you data about the percentages of Windows devices in your tenant that have Current Channel, Monthly Enterprise Channel, and Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel version assignments. If you’re curious about the current installed base, this is probably the best place to start looking unless your deployments are managed using a tool like Quest® KACE® or Microsoft Endpoint Manager.

Changing channels for your users

Every subscription product, including not only Microsoft 365 Apps but also Project and Visio, has a default update channel. For both Microsoft 365 Apps for business and Microsoft 365 Apps for enterprise (and let me say, once again, what terrible product names those are!), Current Channel is the default. That means that, if you want users to get their updates ASAP, you don’t have to do anything.

If by chance you do want to assign specific channels to users, there are a couple of different ways to do it.

  • To change the default channel assigned when users download the apps themselves, go to the Microsoft 365 admin center and choose Show all > Settings > Org settings > Services > Office installation options, then pick the channel you want.
  • If you’ve built your own configuration profiles with the Office Deployment Tool (ODT), you can choose a channel as part of the configuration file you use to push installs.
  • The Update Channel policy setting in the Office ADMX/ADML files lets you select the channel and apply it through a Group Policy object.
  • If you want to let users select their own channel, you can do this with the Policy Management tool in the Microsoft 365 Apps admin center. Create a policy and target it at the appropriate group, then set the policy to enable or disable “Show the Update Channel option to allow users to select an update channel” option that you want; using this approach you can also enable or disable specific channels that users will see in the “backstage” account settings view.

NOTE: Steve Goodman shares how to Switch between Office update channels and enable Teams Preview features in this post.

Conclusion

The majority of users and tenants won’t be affected by this Microsoft change, but it is still useful for you to understand how update channels work and how to control which users get which channels. If your organization has change control practices or strict regulatory or compliance requirements, you may want to consider moving a small percentage of your users to one of the preview channels to give you advance notice of forthcoming changes, but the reality for most of us is that feature changes are promoted and discussed so far in advance that there are very few surprises for the alert IT pro—leaving it to us to communicate the arrival and impact of those changes to our users. Good luck!

About the Author

Paul Robichaux

Paul Robichaux, an Office Apps and Services MVP since 2002, works as the senior director of product management at Keepit, spending his time helping to make awesome data protection solutions for the multi-cloud world we’re all living in. Paul's unique background includes stints writing Space Shuttle payload software in FORTRAN, developing cryptographic software for the US National Security Agency, helping giant companies deploy Office 365 to their worldwide users, and writing about and presenting on Microsoft’s software and server products. Paul’s an avid (but slow) triathlete, an instrument-rated private pilot, and an occasional blogger (at http://www.paulrobichaux.com) and Tweeter (@paulrobichaux).

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