There’s been a lot of Power BI-related news in the last few days. I think it’s enough to say that there is a new Power BI in town, a very different (and much better) story from what we’ve had up to now. Sadly the preview is only available in the US at the moment.
I’m not going to repeat what the official announcements say, though, and you can read them here if you haven’t seen them already:
Here’s the main Power BI website:
Here’s the documentation for the APIs:
Here’s the YouTube channel with lots of videos:
Here’s the help:
So what does all this mean for us, the Microsoft BI community?
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from people who are just starting to test Power Pivot and Excel 2013 is that it just hasn’t been stable (even compared to Excel 2010 Power Pivot). If you’re evaluated new software then crashes and weird behaviour are a massive turn-off, and I sincerely hope that the new update will improve the situation here and make people’s first impressions of Excel as a BI tool much better.
Power BI Decoupled From Excel And Office 365
OK, so Excel is still important but it’s no longer the centre of the Power BI universe. We can now create models and reports in the browser, and even more significantly we have the Microsoft Power BI Designer, a standalone app which is basically Power Query and Power View (no Power Pivot as yet, but I’m sure that will come) bundled together minus Excel. Also, dashboards and reports no longer have to be stored inside SharePoint, there’s a separate site at https://preview.powerbi.com/ for viewing and even creating them.
This is noteworthy for several reasons:
- The whole Office 2013 Professional Plus/Office 365 requirement is now gone. Yes, Power BI will integrate well with Office 2013 and Office 365 if you have it, but you don’t need them any more. This removes a massive barrier to adoption for Power BI: in the past year or so I’ve seen lots of customers get excited about Power BI and then realise they can’t use it because their organisation isn’t using the right version of Excel, or isn’t an Office 365 customer, or they have the wrong SKU of Office 365, and so on.
- We no longer have to wait as long for new functionality. The new HTML5 Power View is available in Office 365 and PowerBI.com but in Excel on the desktop, even after the latest updates, it’s the old Silverlight Power View still. Tight links to Excel slow down the delivery cycle and prevent Power BI from competing effectively. Excel has clearly not been abandoned but my guess is that it won’t see new features arrive in Excel at the same pace as the rest of Power BI because, well, it’s Excel and it moves very slowly (the Excel team are rightly very cautious about new functionality – if Excel is broken then millions of companies around the world have big problems).
- There is a down side to this: more choices and more confusion over which tool to use. Do you build dashboards and reports with the Power BI Dashboard Designer and PowerBI.com, with all the latest Power View chart types and other cool new stuff; or good old Excel, with its mature, well-understood functionality like PivotTables, cube functions, and the worksheet, plus SharePoint Online and Power BI sites; or a mixture of the two? How well do the options work together? What functionality is available in each option exactly? More conservative users will opt for the latter; BI consultants like me will probably go for the former. But it’s yet another difficult conversation to have with the customer.
Is The New Functionality Any Good?
There are three ways of answering this question: looking at the merits of the new functionality on its own, as it stands now; looking forward to what it will be soon; and comparing it with the competition. The new Power BI is certainly a big improvement over what we’ve had so far, and answers a lot of long-standing requests in terms of functionality. The simple fact that it looks sexy is in itself a great selling point. Here, for example, is what a treemap looks like in a Power View report stored in Office 365:
Here’s a dashboard (though I think ‘dashboard’ is a misleading term here, because it’s not what a lot of us would call a dashboard) from PowerBI.com:
It’s fast and I am impressed with how easy it is to use too. Although it’s not ready for production use yet (see below) I can imagine it will be quite soon and it should be good enough to win some deals then. It’s still a long way behind some of the competition in some respects, such as variety of chart types, but in other respects (such as the kind of transformations available in Power Query and the types of advanced calculations that are possible in Power Pivot) it’s as good if not better.
Mobile BI On iOS At Last!
At long last we have a mobile BI story on iOS. I haven’t played with it but I have seen demos and it’s pretty good. The touch interface is cool.
This Is Still A Preview
There’s a lot of functionality missing in the current build by the looks of things. The Power BI dashboard designer includes Power Query and Power View, but what about Power Pivot? I’m surprised it’s not included, and I strongly suspect it will be in a later release. Where does Power Map fit in, if at all? We can connect to on-premises SSAS Tabular, but when will be able to connect to Multidimensional? It will be interesting to see what gets released in the next six months. I bet we’ll also see new chart types and data sources very soon. I hope the Power BI team copy the approach the Power Query team have taken and release new builds every month.
And please, please, please Microsoft don’t screw up on the licensing again. No details on it have been released yet. I hope they keep it simple and affordable.
And It’s Still In The Cloud
Apart from the whole Office 2013/365 issue, the other major blocker to adoption of Power BI is the fact that it’s cloud based and that hasn’t changed. Some customers (especially in Europe) are never going to consider a cloud BI tool because of data privacy concerns, and I don’t think that’s going to change soon. Then there are the loyal MS BI customers who have invested heavily in on-premises SharePoint and can’t just ditch all that infrastructure to move to the cloud. Microsoft needs to have a Power BI story for these customers too.
Finally, what I think could be the killer feature for Power BI: the APIs. Microsoft products are most likely to succeed when they give the partner community a platform to build on. Even if Power BI might not match some of the features of other products out there the ability for a partner to push data into Power BI and support obscure data sources will, I think, allow Power BI to beat its rivals in many cases.
Overall I think the changes that Microsoft have made to Power BI are the right ones in the circumstances. If I’m honest, over the last year I saw a lot of hype for Power BI, a lot of interest in it from customers, but while Power Pivot and Power Query are being used more and more there are very few customers who are using the whole package. The reasons are clear: the Office 2013 ProPlus/365 requirements; the fact it’s in the cloud; and the fact that it’s horrendously difficult to understand what Power BI even is and how the components fit together. The new Power BI deals with some of those problems but not all; I hope Microsoft has done enough to ensure that Power BI gets traction in the marketplace. The new functionality is really good and I’m a lot more optimistic about the future than I was. If Microsoft can keep up the momentum it will have a hit on its hands.