Microsoft put a stake in the ground nearly two years ago when it promised to bring the power of data analytics to a billion users. The vision then: to allow anyone capable of using Excel (and maybe some people who have never even entered data into a spreadsheet) to verbally ask questions of their data and to receive compelling, visual answers in return. 

Quentin Clark, who was vice president of data platforms at Microsoft at the time, introduced Power BI to attendees of the Strata Conference in October of 2013, noting that it was available in beta. This was before Satya Nadella became Microsoft’s CEO, before Microsoft presented its digital assistant, Cortana, to the world, before Salesforce introduced Wave, before SAP unveiled its analytics Cloud, before Amazon had an analytics play …. And neither Tableau nor IBM have been resting on their laurels either.

Suffice it to say, there’s been a lot of action in the analytics space in the last 25 months.

More than two dozen vendors want to work their way to the crest of analytics’ third wave; in fact, Gartner put more than 24 of them in its Magic Quadrant for BI and Analytics Platforms

Analytics for All?

Analytics expert Tom Davenport calls this the Analytics 3.0 era, where analytics are a part of everyone’s job and where insights can be delivered anywhere, anytime to (almost) every screen.

This week Microsoft was pitching its most recent innovations to business executives at its Convergence EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) conference in Barcelona, Spain. The big promise: to bring actionable analytics and real-time intelligence to the common worker — no data wrangling, no coding. Not even a bachelor’s degree required.

Cortana at Your Service

The company has made a big leap forward in this regard via its integration of Cortana with Power BI. Through this innovation, a sales manager can, for example, verbally ask a question about data (such as “revenue last quarter”) and get a numerical answer or in the form of live graphs, charts and other data visualizations.

Cortana uses her Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities to feed the question to Power BI (in a language it understands), and Power BI “effectively acts as a team of IT, BI and business analysis professionals on behalf of the customer, and gets them closer to insight without the specialized skillsets required in these roles,” Patrick Baumgartner, principal program manager of Microsoft Power BI, explained to CMSWire.

Is this a jaw-dropping capability? To many of us, including the ordinary Joe who doesn’t like, know how to, or have the time to wrestle with data, the answer is an easy “yes.” 

It brings to the forefront what Microsoft is good at: enabling the business user, while at the same time supporting systems-of-record requirements, delivering easy-to-use data discovery capabilities, with support for promotability of business-user content and governance.

We should note that a Power BI user would need to know how, or learn how, to connect to analytics data (it can come from anywhere, Google Analytics, for example) and that the results can be generated as a curated collection of dashboards and reports that continuously update with the latest data from the customer’s Google Analytics account. 

Is the Competition Far Behind?

“This (the Cortana, Power BI integration), is very cool,” Doug Henschen, an analyst at Constellation Research told CMSWire. He noted that it will especially come in handy on mobile devices (Baumgartner said Microsoft is working on this) where it’s hard to type. 

Henschen’s colleague, analyst Holger Mueller, noted that Microsoft has put some thought into how to automate the language request inside of Power BI.

“It’s something they have to do, as they own both Cortana and Power BI,” he noted.

Both analysts pointed out that IBM and Amazon could probably quickly deliver these capabilities as well. SAP, at its TechEd conference in October demoed a solution that pairs its analytics cloud with Alexa, its NLP tool that leverages Amazon Echo.

Microsoft also unveiled Power BI Quick Insights, which aims to help users find hidden insights in their data. It accomplishes this by automatically scanning uploaded data to identify and surface patterns and trends. The makes it possible to run a variety of analytical algorithms on data to identify trends from category outliers to seasonality to correlation.

Mueller said that these sorts of capabilities are part of a larger trend to move intelligence to the other side of the LCD. 

“It is no longer the human making sense of data — but software presenting data in a meaningful way to the user,” he said, noting that this could get very interesting once vendors find new ways to visualize and present information. 

“Microsoft has a unique opportunity here in conjunction with HoloLens,” Mueller added. “If done right — users will literally be able to 'walk' through their data — in a virtual setting.”

Henschen was a little less impressed, pointing out that Microsoft is late to the party, noting that IBM Watson already has these capabilities and that they’re available now. Ditto for Amazon Web Services’ QuickSight which is currently in preview, he said.

“Once all three are generally available, I'd be keen to do a qualitative comparison uploading the same data set in all three to see what they come up with independently,” said Henschen.

We plant to take him up on that.

Microsoft added two additional Power BI features this afternoon, a simplified app registration experience, and two report integration APIs. The new registration experience is geared towards making it easier to get started with any of Power BI’s APIs, and the report integration APIs enable you to enumerate reports, or integrate reports directly into your application experience.

What Separates Power BI from the Crowd?

Baumagartner told CMSWire that, unlike competing solutions, Power BI supports both real-time and historical data analysis, not just one or the other. 

“Users expect insight into what’s happening right now, which is why we built both real-time operational dashboard capabilities and historical data analysis (through visual reports) into the solution,” he said.

He also noted that Power BI supports hybrid data connections, meaning customers can connect back to existing, on-premises data sources without requiring customers to move to the cloud. 

“Other BI services require data to be tediously extracted and then uploaded (supporting only small dataset sizes) to the cloud,” he claimed.

Baumgartner also pointed out that Power BI integrates with the rest of Microsoft’s data solutions, meaning that if customers want to apply machine learning algorithms to data or shift data into Hadoop, they can do so seamlessly. 

The Microsoft Factor

And finally, there’s the Microsoft factor to consider — for years the software giant has provided the workhorses of the digital workplace. Baumgartner implied that Cortana and Power BI may fill a similar role, this time for the analytics era. 

“Now questions and insights from enterprise datasets can be made available directly in a personal digital assistant (Cortana). Cortana’s integration in Windows 10 means this dramatically increases the number of people who can potentially access business analytics capabilities beyond just those who have access to specific analytics solutions,” he said.