Microsoft Moves Unified Labeling Client into Maintenance Mode

Unexpected Announcement at a Curious Time

In an unexpected twist just as people were leaving for the holiday period, Microsoft announced on December 21 that, effective January 1, 2022, the Microsoft Information Protection unified labeling client is in maintenance mode. In their post, Microsoft is clear that this status means only that they will not invest in new functionality for the client as they prefer to dedicate engineering resources to building out Microsoft Information Protection (MIP) capabilities in other ways. Although Microsoft won’t enhance the software, they will maintain it to allow customers to continue using the unified labeling client and fix bugs.

Unified Labeling Client Functionality

The unified labeling client includes four major pieces of functionality.

  • Adds the Sensitivity button to the menu bar of Office desktop applications (perpetual versions) to allow users apply sensitivity labels to Office files. The Office applications in Microsoft 365 apps for enterprise include these UI elements. The code to encrypt and decrypt files is in the unified labeling client.
  • Integrates with Windows File Explorer to allow users apply sensitivity labels to files stored outside Microsoft 365 through a Classify and Protect option in the right-click menu.
  • Installs a viewer to allow the display of protected content when an application can’t handle these files.
  • Installs a PowerShell module to allow administrators to manage protected files.

The unified labeling client replaced the original Azure Information Protection client, which Microsoft deprecated on March 31, 2021. The software only runs on Windows. Its heritage goes back to the original Azure Information Protection project when add-on software was the only way to enable information protection functionality. Things are very different now because the Office apps (mobile, click-to-run desktop, and browser) used with Microsoft 365 include native support for sensitivity labels and don’t need any add-on software. By native, I mean that the apps include the necessary MIP code to fetch and display sensitivity labels and encrypt and decrypt files as necessary.

Customer Needs for Information Protection

However, some customers use older versions of the Office desktop apps which don’t support MIP, want to apply sensitivity labels to files stored outside SharePoint Online, OneDrive for Business, and Exchange Online, or need to apply labels to non-Office formats which support sensitivity labels (PDF is a good example). These are the classic use cases when customers decide to deploy the unified labeling client and pay for the necessary Azure Information Protection licenses. See this page for the latest information about the client.

Although Microsoft emphasizes that the unified labeling client remains available and supported, customers will want to see continued progress to build out the MIP ecosystem in both Microsoft and third-party apps. There’s no point in making an investment in MIP if its domain is limited to Microsoft 365 and the Office apps. The role of the MIP SDK is critical in terms of convincing ISVs to support protection of non-Microsoft application data. Adobe’s implementation of MIP to protect PDF files is an example of what’s needed.

In other news conveyed in the same post, Microsoft says that they will sunset the AIP mobile viewer apps for iOS and Android on December 31, 2022. In addition, as announced in early 2020, Microsoft will remove the ability to manage AIP labels in the Azure portal on March 31, 2022. This is not unexpected as full (and better) support for sensitivity label management is available in the Microsoft 365 compliance center.

Better Communication Would Help

Most organizations don’t like surprises which affect their IT strategy. Posting an announcement in the Microsoft Technical Community just before Christmas to inform customers that software is going into maintenance mode nine days later is not an example of good communications. The text creates more questions than it answers. For instance, how long will the unified labeling client remain in maintenance before Microsoft decides to depreciate it? Are more ISVs including native MIP support in their applications? Will customers have to continue to pay for licenses at the same rate to use software that’s no longer under active development?

No doubt Microsoft will answer these and other questions as time goes by. It just would have been better to give customers more notice and more information when this announcement appeared. At least Microsoft made the announcement in time for us to include the information in the January 2022 update for Office 365 for IT Pros!

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