My Microsoft Office 365 woes: Constant crashes, malware macros – and settings from Hell
When being spoilt for choice is sometimes still no choice at all
Sysadmin blog Microsoft Office remains one of the most important software products available, despite some rather nasty flaws. For me, Microsoft Office and video games anchor me to Windows. While video games seem set to remain largely Windows-only for the foreseeable future, Office is losing its grip.
For a long time, I used Office because it was faster. Perhaps more importantly, I knew most of it worked, and I could fairly quickly make a fresh installation do what I wanted. Office 365 has changed all of that.
To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely certain why I got Office 365. I was perfectly happy using Office 2010 that had been beaten about the ears enough to look and feel identical to Office 2003. It was quick, the context menus gave me access to all the commands I wanted, and I managed to get rid of both the spacing after the paragraphs and all those dumb "smart quotes."
Perhaps someone sent me a file that wouldn't open in 2010. Perhaps it was yet another attempt to make Lync work. I will probably never remember. Regardless, the shift to Office 365's version of Office 2013 – and eventually 2016 – has been a descent into madness.
Internet Explorer what?
The worst of the problems crept up recently with Office 2016 flat out crashing randomly. Even when I'm not using it. I could go in, kill every Office application, (including click-to-run), and then for no apparent reason I would see something about Word having crashed.
I figured I had some sort of interesting virus, freaked out and threw every tool I could think of at my notebook. Shortly thereafter, it started happening to my wife's computer. And then my desktop. After all my anti-malware scans came back negative I chalked it up to "must have been an update" and started trying to figure out just what was going on.
I'll save you the intricate details, but suffice it to say that Office has hooks into both Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer. All my systems tend to leave Windows Explorer windows open to frequently used folders. My wife and I work at the same company and we use a secure Dropbox alternative called Sync.
So whenever we opened an Office application it would crash. But also, every time someone in the company updated a file in one of the folders we had open – which tended to be the folders that were most active, so saw the most updates – some part of Office (usually Word) would crash. So my colleague Josh, sitting at home working on Word documents, was crashing Office on our systems.
Cloud computing. Terrific.
It turns out the solution to that particular error is fairly simple: Office can't access Internet Explorer temporary files. A quick search of C:\Users\Trevor\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows did indeed show both Temporary Internet Files and Temporary Internet FilesContent.Word.
All I did was go into the properties for the Temporary Internet FilesContent.Word directory, click "advanced," "change permissions," make sure "Include permissions from this object's parent" was ticked and hit "OK" a couple of times. No more crashes. It seems simple now that I know what the fix is. I presume an update changed a file somewhere in that directory and resetting permissions "made it go." It's one in a long series of similarly niggly little bugs that Office has had of late, and that's not even the bigger issue.
It's 2016 and you can still be pwned by Office macros
Microsoft needs to decide: either Office is the sort of mini-operating system that the modern web browser has become, or it isn't. Macros, scripting and the ability to connect to the internet to grab content is either part of Office, or it's not.
If Office is to be a "rich" productivity suite, then Microsoft needs to accept that it is absolute shit at security and let the tech community do its thing. Under no circumstances should anything be accessing the internet these days without a list of defenses as long as my leg.
If Office is going to continue to have operating system superpowers and play slap and tickle with the internet, then Office needs to wear some digital protection! In Chrome or Firefox, I can install extensions that provide a strong layer of protection from the oogly-booglies on the world wide wait. I use Firefox on my smartphone for exactly this reason. There are many, because they're easy to make.
Office add-ins, on the other hand, are a pain in the ASCII to code. A marketplace does not exist. Digital protection is hard to come by. Oh, and everyone's email is full of an unlimited number of variants of Office documents and emails that, if you open them and groggily click "yes," will pwn your computer.
The overwhelming majority of modern malware threats don't infect Windows systems if you use browsers with decent defenses and you uninstall Office. Thus, just like "hide Internet Explorer" and "install Chrome/Firefox with shields," removing Office and replacing it with anything else where possible is increasingly part of my security recommendations.
Some will remind me that I could simply disable macros. I'll get to that later.
Mo' versions, mo' problems
Office likes to integrate with Windows as well as other versions of Office. This can get messy if, as I do, you end up with a version disparity.
One of my clients needs me to use their internal instant messenger. Their internal instant messenger is Office Communication Server 2007 R2. It works fine, but the newest Lync client I can trick into working with it is Lync 2013.
Similarly, I bought a copy of Visio 2013. I actually use Visio somewhat regularly. Lots of people want network diagrams and, to be quite honest, it's the only "Visio-like" application I actually know how to make work.
The rest of Office, however, is Office 2016. I don't think I have to draw a complicated picture for readers of The Register. Suffice it to say that this is the sort of coexistence scenario I don't think Microsoft's desperately underfunded QA department tests, and the results have been... predictable.
Office 365 didn't really give me much of a choice about the whole upgrading thing. It promised me that if I refused to upgrade to Office 2016 it would stop working. That's when other troubles started.
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