Viz Tech Watch: Microsoft’s Power BI

Viz Tech Watch: Microsoft’s Power BI

Viz Tech Watch: Microsoft’s Power BI

Here at Needle Stacker we’d love if Microsoft came up with a business intelligence (BI) solution that made it easy for Excel veterans like ourselves to publish charts and dashboards online. However, Microsoft’s strategy in that space has been hard to follow, to put it midly. Excel Online, Excel Services, Excel Web App, Power View, Power Pivot, an apparently infinite number of Sharepoint variations, are you possibly confused yet?

So it is with a mix of skepticism and dampened expectations that we have been looking at Microsoft’s latest related product announcement: Power BI. Here’s our quick take so far.

Exec summary: Microsoft seems genuinely eager to launch more open products, and that is a noticeable and laudable cultural change. However Power BI, in its present state, lacks oomph and stability, and seems more appropriate for corporate dashboards than for the type of deep interactive data journalism that tools like Tableau allow.

On the positive side, Power BI’s free online preview is part of a broader wave of cloud-focused products that reflect a less Windows-centric and more open perspective at Microsoft (on this, read The Economist’s take). The website promoting this product is straightforward and doesn’t smother you with the usual Microsoft inwards-looking talk about some SQL Server Enterprise 2014 Pro Plus dependency or other. Gone are the days of requiring you to use other Microsoft products at every turn, which is a welcome relief from older Sharepoint versions that looked terrible in other browsers than Internet Explorer, or Excel Power View’s use of Silverlight.

Pre-configured data connectors are not limited to Microsoft’s own world and traditional enterprise IT, but also includes software as a service providers such as, Marketo, SendGrid or Zendesk. That’s great for marketers, not as useful for publishing purposes. A more universal Zapier connector is not there yet, adding it would be a strong signal of openness. In the meantime, there’s always CSV/Excel imports.

However, this Preview deserves its name as it is still rough around the edges. We ran into critical errors several times while trying to import a simple Excel spreadsheet. So instead we played around with the retail dashboard example coming with the preview. It seems snappier as of early April 2015 than our previous visit just weeks earlier, though you can still feel a lag that wouldn’t happen on a desktop application. Tooltips walk new users through the main features, and the overall visual appearance is clean and streamlined. But the online product seems relatively lightweight and appears focused more on bird view dashboarding and simple charts, rather than deep analysis and more intricate visualizations.

There is a desktop authoring tool called Power BI Designer which takes the various Excel 2013 BI addons (Power Query, Power Pivot Data Model, Power View) and puts them in a standalone desktop application. That is probably where serious work should be done eventually, with the website used primarily for consumption. Fair enough, after all, Tableau uses the same model. But we installed it and gave it a quick try, and its chart design functionality is so far much more limited than what Tableau offers.

Signup to the preview is free and reasonably swift, without the address requirement that often plagued similar betas at Microsoft, so you can easily have a look for yourself. We’ll monitor how Power BI matures into a full release, and they seem eager to iterate. For now, and for the purpose of creating interactive graphics and dashboards for broad online consumption (as opposed to gated intranets), we will stick to Tableau.

When you are trying to reach broad public audiences, maturity matters. And the onus is on Microsoft to choose how they are going to deliver online-friendly viz tools, and stick to that approach for more than a single product cycle.

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