Microsoft working to bring natural language, speech input to Excel

Microsoft working to bring natural language, speech input to Excel

Summary: Microsoft researchers are working on a new, future Excel feature that combines natural language and automatic programming technologies to make queries and data analysis easier.


If you liked Flash Fill for Excel 2013, you're going to love Analyze for Excel. And if you're an Excel user who hasn't heard of either, read on.

Flash Fill is a feature baked into Excel 2013 that enables Excel to fill in information based on examples of what a user wants. As explained in a recent Microsoft Research write up, a user could type a correctly formatted example of names or numbers and FlashFill will automatically fill in the rows below the example with the same formatting. (Microsoft Research and the Office 2013 team worked together on the Flash Fill feature.)


Microsoft Researchers are now working on the follow-up act, known as Analyze for Excel. During a presentation at the recent Microsoft Research TechFest 2013 event -- the part that was for employees only and closed to outside guests -- researchers provided a demonstration of Analyze. Stephen Chapman unearthed a video clip of that demo and published it to his MSFTKitchen site last week.

Analyze uses natural-language tools and automatic-programming-generation techniques to allow users to perform basic calculations and other analytic tasks inside Excel spreadsheets. Instead of having to figure out a way to generate a specific query, users will be able to type in requested information, such as "who got paid the most," and let Analyze do the work of parsing and answering.

At the end of the video clip showing off Analyze, Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Eric Rudder says that eventually speech input will be enabled, allowing users to query Excel by voice.

There was no timetable revealed as to when Analyze will be available as part of a next version of Excel or as a standalone module. But based on the video clip, it sounds like Microsoft officials soon could start using Analyze as one of many examples of machine learning technologies that the company is honing.

While on the topic of Office productivity tools, it's worth mentioning Microsoft updated the Metro-Style/Windows Store version of its OneNote note-taking app last week. The update includes pen and inking improvements, plus support for Office 365 notebooks.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Microsoft, Business Intelligence


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • long overdue

    Excel is a powerful tool, but imposes a huge learning curve to master. Users typically have the data and an understanding of the analysis they need performed. The struggle is determining how to get from point A to point B. Using natural language input would be a huge leap forward
  • Microsoft Office Applefied ver. 1.0

    All existing features: "flash fill" = "auto lists" and "natural query language" = "SQL", I think ms is just applefying office, lol.
    • Not at all

      SQL if no where near natural language. And Flash Fill is not an Auto List - Auto Lists have existed in Excel for a long time.
    • Applefied = cute names for emotional marketing

      voice powered excel in Apple terms would be something like "Larynx Interface for Pi - LIP"
      voice powered Words in Apple terms would be "Love letters" or "Shakespeare input"
    • Apparently you've never used SQL, or any Apple product...

      This type of functionality doesn't exist in either world.. except MAYBE a future version of Excel for Mac... maybe...