Microsoft Makes BI Power Play

Microsoft on Monday released Power BI for Office 365, a business intelligence application for its Office 365 Enterprise subscribers.

Power BI packages together several features that help business users access information from such sources as Windows Azure and elsewhere. They can then use that data to generate business intelligence models, graphs, charts and other visualizations. A variety of tools support sharing and collaboration.

For usability’s sake, Power BI borrows heavily from Excel, but it has been enhanced with other features. Natural language support, for example, fuels Power BI’s Q&A tool. A user can type in a search term — say, “transit-based housing around New York City” — and get results in the form of an interactive chart or graph.

The collaboration and sharing functionality then allows the user to send the graph to others.

A Modern BI Platform

Power BI brings together key aspects of a modern BI platform, according to Quentin Clark, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s data platform group.

It is “a public and corporate catalog of data sets and BI models, a way to search for data, a modern app and a Web-first experience, rich interactive visualizations, collaboration capabilities, tools for IT to govern data and models, and a groundbreaking natural language experience for exploring insights,” he wrote in a blog post.

Business intelligence functionality for the most part has been unattainable to companies lacking the necessary tools and in-house talent to support it, Clark observed.

That theme has characterized this particular enterprise software category for years, but Power BI could change that, he suggested, noting that Office 365 has spread to one of four of Microsoft’s enterprise customers.

“By making our business intelligence features part of Office, we ensure the tools are accessible, and through Office 365, we make the tools easy to adopt — not just the ease of using Web applications, but making things like collaboration, security, data discovery and exploration integrated and turnkey,” Clark wrote in the post.

The Add-On Strategy

What Microsoft is doing with Power BI makes perfect sense, Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT told CRM Buyer, pointing to its leverage of the existing features and popularity of Excel and other applications.

“Microsoft Office 365 is the primary productivity suite used by businesses worldwide, so adding BI capabilities to Office as an add-on feature basically allows Microsoft customers to transition from standard productivity apps to the more complicated realm of business intelligence without much interruption,” he said.

This add-on approach makes sense to users too, King continued. “There is a general consensus now that business intelligence is so important, or becoming so important, that it needs to be a standard, common business tool as easily accessible as a spreadsheet.”

It also is understood now that BI should not be limited to the few highly trained engineers or IT staff who are versed in the application, but rather should be more of a utility that anyone in the organization can access, he added.

Leveraging Excel is a particularly genius move, because BI suffers from the stigma — created from earlier generations of this software category — of being very complicated and difficult to use.

“Excel doesn’t have that problem, so adding BI features to it is like — for many users — learning how to use a GPS when you already know how to drive a car,” King said. They don’t have to learn how to operate an entirely new and complex machine — just one component of it.

Microsoft’s Cash Cow

Business intelligence’s growing popularity almost insured that Microsoft would incorporate it into its Office product for an even more fundamental reason, Laura DiDio, principal of ITIC, told CRM Buyer.

Power BI will help “stem the tide of defection to other productivity offerings and grow Office 365’s installed base,” she pointed out. “That is what it comes down to — Office is Microsoft’s cash cow, and it wants to keep it that way.”

Erika Morphy has been writing about technology, finance and business issues for more than 20 years. She lives in Silver Spring, Md.

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