Configuring Browsers for Microsoft 365 Apps Side-by-Side Viewing

Edge is the Default Browser for Side-by-Side Viewing

Quite a backlash ensued when Microsoft announced that Outlook would open embedded links in email using the Edge browser instead of the system default browser (Figure 1). Apparently, this allows people to “stay in your flow” because side-by-side viewing allows the user to read and respond to the message with the link open, According to Microsoft, Outlook for Windows supports side-by-side viewing from build 16.0.16227.20280. I’m using build 16.0.6505.20002 on one PC and build 16.0.16501.20098 on another and don’t see the functionality in either. Some bits must still be en route.

Edge displays side-by-side information from a web link in an OWA message (source: Microsoft)
Figure 1: Edge displays side-by-side information from a web link in an OWA message (source: Microsoft)

Message center notification MC531738 (last updated 20 April 2023) describes an associated change for Outlook Mobile clients where the client will prompt users to choose between Edge and the system browser to open links. Microsoft says that these arrangements improve the user experience and has nothing whatsoever to do with their desire to drive increased usage for Edge.

Being able to open a web link in a seamless way makes a lot of sense and is a useful development. Microsoft caused the problem by presenting the feature as an Edge exclusive instead of saying that people could use other browsers. Microsoft plans to implement side-by-side viewing for “other Microsoft 365 apps” with Teams lined up to implement the feature next (presumably in both the classic and the preview of the new Teams 2.1 client).

Configure Cloud Policy for Browser Selection

The good news is that Microsoft documentation is available to instruct Microsoft 365 tenant administrators how to configure the browser used for side-by-side viewing. All that’s required is a change to the Microsoft 365 cloud policy assigned to users.

Head to the Microsoft 365 apps admin center and choose Go to Microsoft 365 cloud policy. This reveals the set of policies defined in the tenant. Select the policy to update. Make sure that the policy has the correct scope (the set of users it applies to) and move on to the policy settings. Search for the “Choose which browser opens web links” setting (Figure 2) and then select either Edge or the default system browser (set by the user). Remember to apply the setting and save the policy.

Updating the Microsoft 365 cloud policy to choose the browser to open web links

Side-by-side viewing
Figure 2: Updating the Microsoft 365 cloud policy to choose the browser to open web links

The big thing to remember is that if you don’t update the cloud policy, the default for Microsoft 365 apps is to use Edge. In other words, take action to update the policy or don’t complain afterward when Outlook wants to call Edge to display web pages.

The documentation also explains how to deploy the setting using Microsoft 365 administrative templates.

User-Driven Choice

Microsoft says that users will have an option to configure Outlook desktop settings to choose their preferred browser there (File > Options > Advanced > Link Handling). Teams respects the choice a user makes in Outlook. If an organization deploys policy settings to control the feature, the option to select a browser is grayed out in Outlook. I don’t see the option in either version of Outlook desktop I use.

The client-side option exists not only to allow choice for users in Microsoft 365 tenants but also to serve people with Microsoft 365 Personal or Family subscriptions where facilities like cloud policy management aren’t available. In addition, those using Microsoft 365 for business plans can only use the cloud management policy when it supports side-by-side viewing in Teams. Microsoft’s documentation for for the Family and Personal subscriptions says that Outlook only tries to use Edge on Windows 10 and Windows 11 PCs.

Poor Communications Get in the Way of a Good Idea

In summary, side-by-side viewing is a good idea that Microsoft mishandled in terms of communications. The controls to allow organizations to exert choice over the browser used in side-by-side viewing are available, and users can make their own choice if an organization policy is unavailable. If Microsoft had said that when they introduced the concept instead of focusing on Edge, no one would have been concerned and fuss and bother avoided.

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