Microsoft Retires AIP Add-On for Office

Need Recedes for Unified Labeling Client

On April 11, Microsoft announced that they will retire the AIP client, aka the Unified Labeling client, aka the AIP add-on for Office, on 11 April 2024. The add-on has been in maintenance mode since January 1, 2022, so its final retirement was only a matter of time. Once retirement happens, users cannot assign sensitivity labels to documents through the add-on.

A Long Road

In 2016, when I first started writing about how to protect Office documents with labels, the labels were called Azure Information Protection labels and users needed to install the add-on to add elements like the information protection bar and the code to apply rights management to documents. The situation was natural because Azure Information Protection was a separate product that targeted Office but had no formal alignment with Office development. The add-on was only available for Office on Windows.

Things changed when Microsoft decided that sensitivity labels were strategically important to Office 365, which meant that they needed to build support for sensitivity labels across the infrastructure in apps like SharePoint Online and Exchange Online and desktop, browser, and mobile apps. Sensitivity label support is now broad and deep across Microsoft 365, including for container management of sites, groups, and teams. Regretfully, sometimes Microsoft demands additional licenses for features that seem very basic, such using the Syntex-SharePoint Advanced Management license to control the assignment of default sensitivity labels to SharePoint document libraries.

In 2019, Microsoft started the process of removing the add-on by incorporating the code to handle sensitivity labels in the Office applications (native mode protection). The goal is to provide the same or better functionality in the out-of-the-box Microsoft 365 apps for enterprise (Office desktop) versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Microsoft says that the Microsoft 365 apps for enterprise “now have most of the capabilities found in the AIP Unified Labeling add-in for Office as well as advanced capabilities not possible with the AIP Unified Labeling add-in for Office.” The most important of these capabilities are:

  • PDFs exported from the Office apps retain protection applied by sensitivity labels.
  • Sensitivity labels can protect meeting invitations (including attachments) and responses.
  • Account switching.
  • Users cannot disable labeling controls.

Microsoft has long stressed that incorporating code from the Microsoft Information Protection SDK to make applications natively aware of information protection leads to better performance and increased stability. In other words, something that’s built-in is likely to work better than when an application needs to load in external code.

Native protection is only available with the subscription versions of Office. The functionality isn’t supported by perpetual versions of Office like Office 2019.

Making Changes to Ease Migration

Technologies that affect how people work are usually harder to migrate to new platforms than background processing is. Changes to Office applications are good examples of the truth of this assertion (as anyone who remembers the introduction of the ribbon in Office 2007 can attest).

As an example, the add-on features an information protection bar that people like. The Microsoft 365 apps don’t use the information protection bar. Instead, Microsoft has changed the menu and title bars of the Office apps to highlight labels in a different way, including displaying different colors for different labels. The latest tweak is in Outlook desktop, where the latest builds feature a prominent new button to allow users to more easily assign a sensitivity label to emails (Figure 1).

Applying a sensitivity label with Outlook

Unified labeling client
Figure 1: Applying a sensitivity label with Outlook

Other Azure Information Protection Elements

I stopped using the unified labeling client two years ago. However, I have installed the unified labeling client on PCs to get other elements that came with the add-on such as the Azure Information Protection PowerShell module and the ability to classify and protection files from the Windows Explorer. The PowerShell module is especially helpful when the need exists to remove sensitivity labels from files.

Microsoft says that they are not retiring these elements, nor are they retiring the viewers that allow people to view protected content on Windows, iOS, and Android, or the Azure Information Protection Scanner. Microsoft says that following the retirement of the add-on, they will remove it from the installable package available in the Download Center. User will be able to install the new version of the package to access the other elements, which will also be rebranded as Microsoft Purview capabilities.

Time to Move On

The unified labeling client or add-on for Office has served its purpose. It’s time to let it go and migrate as quickly as possible to use the built-in capabilities that exist in Office. Apart from the small fact about the retirement, it’s clear that Microsoft has poured engineering effort into building out the sensitivity label infrastructure across Microsoft 365 for the last several years. Benefit of that work isn’t available to the add-on, which is a good a reason to move on as anything else.

So much change, all the time. It’s a challenge to stay abreast of all the updates Microsoft makes across Office 365. Subscribe to the Office 365 for IT Pros eBook to receive monthly insights into what happens, why it happens, and what new features and capabilities mean for your tenant.

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