Some Thoughts About Power BI
By now you’ll probably have seen the Power BI announcement from Microsoft. It’s an important one, and if you haven’t seen it I suggest you take a look at the official announcements and website here:
Andrew Brust also has a good summary of the news here:
There’s no point me repeating what’s already been said, so I thought I’d post my initial reaction to it:
- Proper Mobile BI! HTML 5 Power View! It works on iPads too! Hurray! At-bloody-last! The mobile BI solution will allow you to find, interact with and share “Excel and Power View content”, so I guess that includes Excel worksheets (with PivotTables, slicers etc) as well as Power View reports (a close look at the screenshots in the blog posts above back this up).
- Making Power BI available only via Office 365 is going to be a very controversial strategy in the MS BI partner community. To be clear: as far as I understand it, Data Explorer (now Power Query), GeoFlow (now Power Map), mobile BI and all of the cool stuff that’s just been announced is only going to be available through Power BI, and therefore Office 365. Unfortunately the biggest companies, with the biggest BI budgets, are often the ones who are slowest to upgrade to the latest versions of Office and a lot of cases this won’t change just because someone wants to see their reports on an iPad. Where IT department inertia, worries about data privacy and company politics mean that Office 365 is not an option, Microsoft will lose out to the pure-play BI vendors who offer standalone solutions.
- If you look at this from a different point of view, though, some of the things that I (as a BI Pro) feel least comfortable about in Microsoft’s BI strategy are also its greatest strengths. The way I see it, MS is not treating self-service BI as a solution in its own right, but selling self-service BI as a feature of Office. This makes a lot of sense from Microsoft’s point of view – it’s building on the fact that Excel is the tool of choice for data analysis for 99% of users. What I think is going to happen as a result of this is that, rather than partners selling BI as a standalone solution as in the past, we’re going to be talking to people who have already got Office 2013 or Office 365 and are looking to make the most of the BI features that come as part of that. The MS BI partner community is going to have to adjust to this because I doubt MS is going to change this strategy soon.
- The same can be said of the Office 365-only strategy. If Microsoft is going to be successful with its cloud-first strategy then it’s going to have to prioritise cloud functionality over on-prem functionality. I think MS is doing the right thing with its cloud-first strategy, so therefore, even though I’m going to find it painful when I have to deal with customers that won’t or can’t move to Office 365, I can understand why MS is making Power BI Office 365 only. Beyond the hype (MS says that 1 in 4 of its customers is already on Office 365), it does seem like the uptake of Office 365 is quite strong, especially in SMBs, so hopefully there will be a large potential customer base.
- I’ve been presenting sessions on the Excel 2013 BI stack at various user groups and conferences over the last few months and it’s gone down very well indeed. A lot of people have come up to me after seeing my session and said that they had been looking at QlikView and Tableau for BI, and would now consider Office 2013 as another alternative. The BI functionality on its own is pretty good, and good enough for a lot of customers even if it isn’t as mature as some of the competing offerings; the fact that the BI functionality comes baked into Office is the killer. While it may be expensive to upgrade to Office 2013/Office 365 this is a cost that many businesses will be considering anyway regardless of their BI requirements; you also have to compare this with the cost of QlikView and Tableau licenses and remember that not every user will need the most expensive SKUs of Office 2013.
- The ability to refresh data in Excel workbooks deployed to Sharepoint Online, even when the data sources are on-prem, is a key feature and one that I’ve been waiting for. I wonder what the performance will be like?
- For anyone of a certain age, the first reaction to the news of the natural language querying capability is two words: English Query. I haven’t played with it so I can’t pass judgement, but it’s going to have to be pretty impressive if anyone is going to use it for more than just sales demos. We shall see…
- I am quite curious about the enterprise data search capabilities. Leaving aside the ability to query them in natural language, the ability to search for data across the enterprise will be useful. I think this is what happened to Project Barcelona.
- Similarly, it seems as though this search capability is going to be significantly expanded on the public internet. At the moment, in Data Explorer Power Query we’ve seen the ability to query Wikipedia for data. Being able to query many other public data in the same way will be very powerful. There are a number of sites like Quandl that already make public datasets very easy to find and download, and the new search and query capabilities could leapfrog them.
- No announcement on pricing has been made as yet. Please, please be ridiculously cheap!
- We don’t have a date for the preview yet, but if you sign up here you’ll be notified when it’s available. It’s meant to be coming “later this summer”.
UPDATE: Some more things to add…
- Something I didn’t pick up on at the time, but which emerged on Twitter later, is that PowerPivot has had a name change: it’s now Power Pivot with a space, to make it consistent with PowerV View and so on. This might seem minor, but for those of us who write books and have to sweat these details, it’s quite important!
- I sense I’ve hurt a few feelings at MS with my comments on the natural language query. Let me be clear about my position here: I’ve not played with it, so I can’t pass judgement yet. I can imagine that natural language search for data will work well, but I will be very, very impressed if natural language query works well enough to be used on real data by real users. Real data is dirty and complex and user expectations will be very high and easily dashed. My guess is that the main issue will be that users can’t distinguish between what is a query and what is a calculation, and while the product can probably do queries well (eg “Show me the sales of widgets this year”) it may struggle with calculations (eg “Show me the customer churn by month this year”). But as I said, we shall see.
Finally, and as always, I reread this post this morning and worried that I sound too negative when in fact I’m very positive overall. To summarize:
- The fact this is is all in Office and specifically Excel = the killer feature.
- Mobile BI = good, even if it’s very late.
- Power Query = very, very, very good indeed. I love it already and I think it’s going to be as big, if not bigger than Power Pivot. Power BI is worth buying for this alone.
- Office 365 requirement = a problem for some customers, maybe, but understandable from Microsoft’s point of view.
- Cloud requirement = again, a problem for some, but understandable and a big advantage for SMEs who can’t afford the cost of hardware and time to configure Sharepoint on-prem. The ability to refresh in the cloud from on-prem data sources is the key feature here.
- Power Map = OK. Useful for customers who need geographic analysis, but it’s main use is that it’s great for demos (and this should not be underestimated – all products need some wow).
- Power View goes HTML5 = relief. The Silverlight dependency undermined its credibility no end.
- Natural language search for data sources = potentially very useful.
- Natural language query of those data sources = see above. I remain to be convinced.
- Data stewardship features = I haven’t seen enough of these to be able to comment.
More blog posts worth reading on this subject:
UPDATE #2: even more things to add…!
You can see the video of Amir’s demo from WPC here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jsa-5LGx_IY&feature=youtu.be
Some more details (which should be accurate) from a friend of mine at the conference:
- The Power View standalone app is still Silverlight based, it’s only the mobile app that uses HTML5
- Power Query queries can be shared between users via BI Sites, but the execution of these queries always takes place in desktop Excel. Queries will appear in searches when they’re published to a BI Site.
- Excel workbooks connected to on-prem SSAS (Tabular and Multidimensional) will also be refreshable from a BI Site
- Natural Language queries (what I think is being called “Q&A”) will also work against SSAS Tabular models. The Categorization property that’s in the Advanced tab in the PowerPivot window, and also in SSDT, is partly used to help Q&A do this.
- External users can be given access to reports in BI Sites.
- There will be a “Data Steward Portal” which will help you monitor who is doing what on your BI Site.
- No comment on when this will arrive in Sharepoint on-prem. My feeling is that MS have no plans to do this at all, or maybe will only do it if a lot of people complain…?