Close Out (Early 2016)
It would appear that things are more or less back to normal. I never got an “everything is okay and live” email, but theming and branding are working properly both on public sites (tick, tock, tick, tock …) and internal sites. No conflicts at this point. Since I like to tie things up when complete, we’ll call this one “done” for now and move on.
Update (Evening 7/23/2015)
Microsoft has been looking at this issue, and progress is being made! My public site looks like it has returned to normal … but I know that we’re not quite out of the woods yet.
John from Microsoft followed-up with me yesterday and said the following:
“We have pulled the flight that was impacting everyone from production. The plan is to address these issues before turning the flight back on. Would you be up for piloting the upgraded flight before we turn it back on for everyone? Also, you mention you know others who are having problems, would they be willing to pilot the new flight as well? If so, please provide their contact information so I can follow up with them.”
Clearly, there’s a strong “flying vibe” in Redmond ….
I told John that I was definitely a “go” for the flight, and that I knew some others who’d experienced problems. And that’s where I’m hoping that some of you can help.
If you have been encountering problems with your Office 365 public site that are similar to mine – and you want to be part of the fix – let me know and I’ll hook you up with John. Shoot me your name, email address, and public site URL; I think that will do the job.
Original Post (below)
First of all, let me state that I’m not talking about the fact that Office 365 public sites are going the way of the dinosaur. That’s old news at this point. Instead, I’m talking about a “disruption in the force” that some of you may have observed when recently browsing to your public sites and discovering that they had … changed.
And what do I mean by “changed?” In my case, it was the observation that my public site’s branding had been altered to something I hadn’t chosen. The background image was different, the fonts weren’t the same, a number of the CSS styles I had applied to address scrollbar positioning and what-not weren’t in effect, and more. In essence, my custom branding had been completely steamrolled.
The After And The (Sort-Of Before)
Don’t take my word for it, though. Have a look for yourself. On the left is my public site as I discovered it a couple of weeks back (i.e., near the beginning of July, 2015). On the right is the way it’s supposed to look … sort of. The fonts and aspects of the responsive design are still off in the “corrected” version on the right, but I managed to hack the proper background, scrollbars, and a few other elements back to where they were previously. Even though I didn’t get everything corrected, differences between the two are immediately obvious.
I was confident that it had been months since I had changed anything on my public site, but I verified the branding assets in the Office 365 site against what I was tracking in source control. As expected, they were identical. The changes I was observing were not due to anything I had done to the public site.
Grumble Grumble …
Since it wasn’t the first time I’d had issues with unexpected changes and behavior on my public site, I wasted little time before going to Facebook to complain aloud. Many of my friends in the SharePoint community are also friends on Facebook, so I figured I’d get some support (moral, if nothing else) there.
Shortly after posting the update seen on the left, I tagged a couple of my Microsoft friends (specifically, Jeremy Thake and Chris Johnson) who work with the Office 365 team(s) and asked if I should have known about an update or change that might have affected my public site in this fashion. Even though I was confident that I hadn’t done anything to directly impact my public site’s look-and-feel, I was not about to rule out the possibility that I had missed something that had been communicated to me. In fact, I have been consulting in information technology long enough to know that my “mental glove” doesn’t catch everything thrown to me; anymore, I just kind of assume that I am in error and work from there.
Jeremy got back to me first and indicated that he didn’t have anything specific to share, but he indicated he would take the issue to folks (internally) who should know. Shortly after that, Chris tagged Steve Walker (another Microsoftee with superhuman powers) to bring the issue to his attention. Steve told me to file a service request (SR) and that he would escalate that SR right away. So, I filed the service request with supporting screenshots and documentation … and as he had indicated he would, Steve escalated the SR in less than an hour.
In the meantime, I did what I could to get some of my site’s branding back to the way it had been. How did I do that? With the liberal application of the dreaded !important CSS directive in the custom style sheet I had created to go with my master page. The !important directive is definitely not something I use (or even like to go near) on a daily basis, but in this case, I was trying to achieve results with a minimal investment of time and effort. I needed my styling to trump whatever was being laid-down after my style sheet was being processed.
So, What Happened Next?
Following Steve’s escalation, I started working with an extremely approachable escalation engineer named John. John and I exchanged some emails, did a late-night screen-sharing session, and generally looked things up-and-down. John concurred that what we were seeing shouldn’t have been happening, and he mentioned that he had another customer or two that seemed to be having a similar problem. Some tracing in those cases seemed to implicate a recent client-side theming change that had been made and rolled-out.
An issue with client-side theming “felt” right to me. I had used Internet Explorer’s Developer Tools to do some backtracking into the source of the errant styles that were being applied to my site, and I noticed that the background image was being served from a temporary theme directory on the server. Until I started forcing my styles to override the ones that were being applied (an example of which is shown on the right), the theme styles were trumping my own styles.
John was out for a while, but he came back to me recently with the following explanation. And his explanation makes complete sense:
So the problem you were having was the result of a bad interaction with a third-party CSS minification technique called minisp. By adding HTML comments around our CssLink controls in the master page, the <link> tags we normally render are part of a comment and therefore not part of the DOM.
When Client-Side Theming goes to replace the CSS on these pages, it wants to put the generated <style> blocks immediately before the corresponding <link> tags. Since it can’t find the <link> tags in the DOM, it defaults to adding the <style> blocks to the end of the document head. Since these come after the custom CSS, the rules in our themed CSS take priority over the rules in the custom CSS.
As of July 21st, 2015, there is no official resolution. Since this has been identified as a problem in how client-side theming handles CSS <style> block insertions, though, the ultimate fix needs to come from Microsoft. In the meantime, I’ll be sticking with my hacked CSS style sheet to get back most of the look-and-feel that I need. I could expend additional (development) effort to ensure that my styles are applied after the Office 365 theme styles without using !important, but there are plenty of other more important tasks vying for my attention right now.
So, if you found this post and it’s helping you to realize that you’re not going insane (at least not because of public site branding changes you didn’t make), I’ll feel that my job is done.
As I hear more and changes take place, I’ll try to update this post accordingly. Check back every now and then if you want the play-by-play on this issue.
Parting Thoughts: A Tip Of My Hat To Microsoft
In the past, I’ve been pretty vocal about the way that Microsoft has sort of “rolled” changes onto its Office 365 customer base and failed to communicate problems in a timely and complete fashion – actions (or lack of action) that ultimately caused pain and problems. As vocal as I’ve been in those situations, I want to go on-record as saying (just as loudly) that Microsoft has definitely listened to the critical feedback it has been receiving and has acted to make changes that we have indicated we need.
Even though this public site branding issue is indeed a bug, Microsoft listened and responded quickly – without protest, without claiming that “nothing is wrong,” and without some of the problem behaviors I used to see.
Where there were previously few communications about Office 365 outages, problems, changes, and updates, we now have a boatload of information (with some of it actually being pushed) to us to keep us in-the-know on our tenants, where they stand at any given point in time, and where they are going. I can get both at-a-glance health information and deep explanations for issues using the administrative portal’s Service Health dashboard. I get push notifications whenever something happens in my tenant using the Office 365 Admin application that runs on my Windows Phone. I know when new service features and capabilities are rolling out, if changes have been cancelled, etc., by looking at the Office 365 Roadmap. And these are just some of the channels and information streams that are available.
Is Microsoft “all the way there” yet? No, but they are dramatically further along than when Office 365 first rolled-out. Outages still occur – as they do with any service – but I feel like I know what’s going on now. That’s a huge improvement in my book.
References and Resources
- Microsoft Support: Information about changes to the SharePoint Online Public Website feature in Office 365
- Office 365 Public Site: Bitstream Foundry LLC
- LinkedIn: Jeremy Thake
- LinkedIn: Chris Johnson
- LinkedIn: Steve Walker
- Stack Overflow: What are the implications of using “!important” in CSS?
- MSDN: Using the F12 developer tools
- Microsoft: Office 365 Service Health Status
- Windows Phone App Store: Office 365 Admin
- Office.com: Office 365 Roadmap