June 15, 2017

Microsoft Looks to Build on Power BI Momentum

George Leopold

(everything possible/Shutterstock)

Microsoft used its data insights summit to tout the progress of its flagship business intelligence offering introduced two years ago as a cloud-based platform that provides connectivity to critical enterprise data stored on-premise.

Microsoft entered the crowded BI and analytic tool segment in July 2015 with its Power BI platform, which according to recent industry rankings has helped it break out from a crowded pack of vendors. Power BI and other platforms are helping to expand use of analytical tools like data visualizations.

James Phillips, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s business applications, platform and intelligence unit, announced during this week’s data summit that new BI Power products would be shipping over the next three months. The company this week released an upgraded version of its BI platform that includes “dedicated capacity in the cloud” that can be accessed without a license or subscription.

“We looked at the BI landscape, we looked at business analytics, we saw the cloud and the impact it was having on the delivery of software,” Phillips noted during a keynote address. The company positions Power BI as more than just a software service, stressing that the platform helps connect data—”connectivity to the data you care about,” Phillips added.

Along with global cloud access for BI users, he noted that the platform allows users to “reach back on-premises to your data” via a secure data gateway. “Let’s face it, [on-premise] is where a lot of the data still exists.”

Microsoft’s James Phillips

Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) claims it has so far attracted several millions Power BI users, prompting “hundreds” of independent software vendors to develop content packs, the Microsoft executive said.

Among those new applications are custom data visualizations. Microsoft has opened up Power BI’s visualization stack as a platform where developers and customers can fine-tune visualizations for specific analytics tasks. While some are available on the Microsoft Office store, “most of them, though, are really specific to individual companies,” Phillips said.

Market analyst Gartner Inc. has over the last two year ranked Microsoft among the leaders in the BI sector. It latest rankings place Power BI ahead of rivals such as Tableau Software (NYSE: DATA) and Qlik. The market watcher most recently lauded the Microsoft analytics platform for its ability to manipulate data from multiple data sources, such as Hadoop and relational databases residing in the cloud or in datacenters.

Garter also noted the software giant’s product roadmap, which includes features like natural-language query and generation via Cortana, which is Microsoft’s version of Apple’s Siri.

In a data visualization presentation, Alberto Cairo, director of the Visualization Program at the University of Miami’s Center for Computational Science, noted the growing use of visualization in business and media. One reason is the availability of tools such as Excel and Power BI along with a growing list of programming languages like R and Python.

“All these tools have become easier to use than they used to be…and in some cases are completely free, and in some cases open source,” Cairo noted.

But tools aren’t everything, Cairo stressed, noting that he is increasingly concerned that greater access to tools may also account for more users designing inaccurate data visualizations. “Many people misuse visualizations,” he warned. “They design ineffective visualizations, and that is dangerous and also worrying.” Further, “they misinterpret visualizations when they see them.”

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