Microsoft Power BI: A report card

It was hard to fathom that Power BI would get the traction it has today. But Microsoft is in this game to compete and the level of play is very high.

I've been working with Microsoft BI since its inception, in the late 1990s. I served on Microsoft's BI Partner Advisory Council for about 5 years. I've run, or helped run, consulting shops that engaged in numerous projects with MS BI technology. I'm also a Microsoft Data Platform MVP. With that in mind, I'll be focusing on Microsoft data technologies more intentionally (though not exclusively) in this and future posts.

Even with that rather undeniable bias in my background, and with the hopes that go with that, I never really thought that Power BI, Microsoft's newest foray into the BI world, would get a strong foothold. And I certainly never imagined it would get the traction it has today.

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History of the Power BI world, part one
Power BI began life as a series of Excel add-ins which eventually came to be known as Power Pivot, Power View, Power Map and Power Query. Power View also manifested a SharePoint add-in; cobbling all of this together with Office 365 allowed Microsoft to bundle it as a cloud offering, which constituted version 1 of Power BI.

But that ragtag approach made things pretty clunky and pretty expensive. As I explained to ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley when she covered the Power BI 1.0 pricing announcement two and a half years ago, this made Power BI's price almost as much as, and in some cases even more expensive than, Tableau's cloud offering - known as Tableau Online, even though Tableau was (and is) an established, very popular solution for BI and data discovery.

Reason to be cheerful: part two
At a certain point Microsoft decided to reboot Power BI, and change the packaging and pricing approach significantly. Dependencies on Excel, SharePoint and Office 365 were removed. A freemium pricing model was employed, with the paid level topping out at only $10/user/month (versus the $20-$52/user/month introductory pricing for Power BI 1.0). Mobile clients were developed not just for the market-share-challenged Windows Phone, but for iPhone, iPad and Android phones too.

James Phillips, one of the co-founders of NoSQL pioneer Couchbase, was recruited into Microsoft and put in charge of the Power BI portfolio, among others. Meanwhile Ariel Netz, one of the founding Microsoft BI engineers, took a leadership role in building Power BI Desktop. Another original cast member, Amir Netz, a Microsoft Technical Fellow (and, yes, Ariel's brother) was a driving force behind Power BI and Power View, so the lineage is pretty definitive. (Amir's demos of Power View's beta manifestation, "Crescent," were legendary.)

Data! Getcha data here!
Now Power BI connects to a dizzying array of data sources. These include a great many Web service APIs, not just for sites/services like Salesforce, QuickBooks and Marketo but even stuff like GitHub, Zendesk and Twilio. Updates are released approximately every three weeks - a huge switch from a cadence that used to be coordinated with the release cycles of SQL Server and Office.

Morale seems very high. And whether from IoT startups, consulting partners or ISVs, third party adoption is also high as well. Microsoft is in this game to compete, and it's making an impression. So much so that in the aftermath of February 5th of this year, the day Tableau's share price tumbled almost 50% in value, some cited Power BI as one underlying cause.

Back to work
That last bit is hyperbole though. First off, a few of the brothers Netz' former Microsoft colleagues are in VP positions at Tableau (and Qlik, AtScale and IBM) now, and they are nothing if not formidable. Second, the Power BI team has more homework to do. Among things on their list:

  • An authoring client for Mac users (or at least a Web client that has full parity with the Windows-only Power BI desktop)
  • Better integration of the former Power Query into Power BI desktop
  • A consumption client for Android tablets (or the addition of touch-friendliness and reactive rendering on the Web client)
  • More built-in visualizations, and a better story around 3rd party, custom visualizations, which can be unstable at times
  • Extension of "DirectQuery" mode (wherein queries to the data model are delegated to the back-end data source in real-time) to more data sources
  • A rationalization of Microsoft's four report types (Power BI reports, SQL Server Reporting Services paginated reports, SSRS mobile reports, and Excel reports) and a clear story around their availability both on-premises and in the cloud

I know for a fact that Microsoft is working on several of these to-do's. And with the rapid release cadence I already discussed, competitors should be on their toes.

The road to the cloud is through analytics
Can Microsoft really usurp the likes of Tableau and Qlik? Does it even want to? My take: Microsoft wants to drive more customers to more services on their cloud(s), and they want to be at the forefront of data, analytics and artificial intelligence. To the extent that Power BI helps Redmond power through to that position, it's a success in the eyes of Satya Nadella and his leadership team.

I'm content (and appreciative of the luxury) to wait and see what happens next and what innovations from come from Microsoft's competitors as a result. There's no doubt that the game is on, and that everyone's level of play is very high.

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