Not content to leave the small-but-growing field of cloud-based analytics software to its rivals, Microsoft has unveiled Power BI for Office 365.
The software (which is layered into Excel) is targeted primarily at small and midsize businesses, and gives employees throughout an organization the ability to “self serve” data analytics. Because Power BI is delivered via the cloud, that number-crunching can be done without the need for additional investment in servers and other infrastructure.
Power BI includes the ability to connect with on-premises data sources (and schedule for regular data refreshes), mobile access to data (via Windows 8, Windows RT, and iPad), dedicated virtual workspaces where employees can share data and reports (known as “BI Sites”), and a natural-language query system that can respond with visualizations such as charts and graphs (“Show customers by country from 2008 through 2012”).
Unlike any number of startups that focus on data analytics to the exclusion of other software categories, or even massive IT vendors such as SAP that expend considerable resources (and essentially bet their businesses, in the process) on business-intelligence software, Microsoft’s portfolio extends from gaming all the way to operating systems and productivity software. Power BI is very much an outgrowth of Microsoft’s focus on pushing all its products as a holistic solution for businesses: as a cloud product, for example, it’s closely interlinked with Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud-productivity platform. And by filtering Power BI data through Excel, Microsoft extends the latter’s utility—no small thing, considering the recent rise of Google Apps and other productivity-software rivals.
Microsoft is positioning Power BI as more accessible than rival tools. “By betting on Excel, we can bring the power of big data insights to the people who are closest to the business—not a specialist with an expensive, specialized tool—but everyone in the organization can find deeper insights that will help them make better decisions,” read a July 8 note on the SQL Server blog.
Power BI isn’t Microsoft’s only latest-generation analytics platform. The company is also pushing Power Query, a tool for stitching together massive datasets, and Power Map, which offers powerful data-visualization capabilities. “These new tools not only make it easy to connect to traditional structured data, but also allows business users to easily connect to a Hadoop cluster in a company’s data center or to Windows Azure HDInsight in the cloud,” the blog posting added.
But can Microsoft’s analytics offerings make it a threat to IBM, Oracle, and other IT vendors that have invested heavily in heavy-duty Big Data platforms? That’s an open question. Certainly Power BI could appeal to small and midsize businesses with a need for crunching data—and for Microsoft, making a showing in that category might be more than enough. The company doesn’t need to bet the farm on analytics, although introducing a few data-crunching tools to its considerable portfolio won’t exactly hurt its bottom line.