Microsoft has just upped the ante again in the productivity suite space with the addition of a bunch of new features to its Power BI for Office 365. Among the new additions is natural language search and 3D mapping visualizations, which combined will bring impressive 3D analytics visualizations to Office 365 users.

One of the many interesting things about these releases is that Microsoft is releasing them before Power BI is even out of private beta, which says as much about the competition in the productivity space as it does about Microsoft’s ambitions for Office 365.

Microsoft has never been shy of publicising those ambitions and has been adding functionality to Office 365 since its release in June 2011.

On top of this, Microsoft lifted the lid on its Office 365’s uptime last month -- in itself quite impressive --and promised to give updated figures for this every three months.

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Power BI for Office 365

In all, quite an impressive package. However, one of the features that Office 365 was lacking was business intelligence. Microsoft finally remedied that during the summer with the release of a limited, business intelligence beta in July.

Microsoft describes Power BI for Office 365 as a self-service business intelligence service that is delivered through Office 365, closing off what was generally perceived to be one of its main weaknesses, and a considerable advantage for its Google Business Apps competitor.

Q+A Search

According to a SQL Server blog post, the response to the new analytics functionality since July has generally been positive. This week’s upgrades add a new Q+A search, which means that users will be able to query enterprise data through a Q&A function.

This new functionality, Microsoft says, is based on the lessons it learned through the development of Bing, applying them to Power BI.

The result is that using natural language queries, the Q+A search function will be able to ‘understand’ user's queries and offer them the answers to those queries in the shape of an interactive chart, or graph.

Power Map

However, Q+A Search is not the only upgrade that Microsoft has announced this week. It has also improved the scope and range of its Power Map feature, an add-in into Excel. The upgrade offers users the possibility of combining and transforming data into 3D visual representations, and analyze those 3D representations.

The Map improvements include a better online search experience as well as a larger number of datasets that can be fed into it, including sets of data available from data.gov and Windows Azure Marketplace.

Data import has also been improved along with the data filter capabilities across all possible data sources. Finally, to top it all off, it provides tighter integration with Excel.

The Role of BI of Office 365?

So where does this leave Office 365 and its business intelligence capabilities? As of today, it does not change very much as it is still only in limited beta and only available to those that sign up to it (see here).

Going forward, though, and looking to a point in the future when it becomes generally available, it could cause some real problems for Google Business Apps, which offers analytics, but in a much more limited way.l.

The other thing that it does is give business users access to big data. By tying analytics into Office 365 in an accessible and relatively easy-to-use way through Excel, it opens large sets of information to everyone. This is only the latest in a long list of improvements since January with more on the way.