The product first debuted during the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in July. It enables Office 365 users to explore data and derive potentially business-boosting insights in Excel. The draw, according to the company, is that everyone, not just data scientists or trained specialists, can perform big data analytics.
"Democratizing data availability to users" is Microsoft's goal, Julia White, general manager of Office product marketing, told eWEEK during an interview. Currently, few employees—an estimated 10 percent—have access to business analytics, but "a lot more can benefit from it," White said.
Microsoft is "bringing BI to a billion users," she said. The company boasts a billion-strong Office user base.
Power BI for Office 365 leverages cloud computing to help power its data analysis and visualizations tools. Organizations can leverage its Data Management Gateway to link on-premise data sources, schedule refreshes and keep their workers current with the latest reports.
The cloud also powers BI Sites, the product's collaboration piece. The Web- and mobile-friendly dedicated workspaces and resource centers allow authorized users to save, share and search for reports, visualizations and data queries created in Excel's Power Query tool.
Capping off the user-friendly feature set is natural language support. Taking a cue from modern search engines, including the company's own Bing offering, Power BI for Office 365's Q&A features encourage users to "type questions they have of the data in natural language and the system will interpret the question and present answers in the form of interactive visualizations," said the company in a blog post.
During an online demo, Ari Schorr, Office product marketing manager, showed how a user can explore data and generate reports by simply asking Power BI. Using data from New York City's 311 non-emergency help and information service, he was able to quickly generate visualizations showing the number of calls and complaints logged by the system during the recent Super Bowl weekend.
Taking things further, Schorr overlaid the 311 data over an interactive map of the city to show how hotspots rose and waned over time—all without a lick of code or specialized software. These "geospatial insights" and other easily-digestible interactive experiences are more engaging than "just looking at flat data," he added.
Easy-to-use self-service analytics and rich visualizations also make it more likely that employees will share their discoveries, said Schorr. Power BI for Office 365 lays the groundwork for employees "taking what they already know and extending it out in an organization," he asserted.
Practically any employee can leverage the technology to become a knowledge worker, White said. "I use Power BI and this experience on a daily basis," she said. Business intelligence and big data analytics is "not in the hands of data wonks anymore," she added.