The first product Microsoft released after Satya Nadella took over as CEO was Power BI, which lets normal business people make sense of floods of data without requiring a tech specialist. He has since called it the “next giant leap” in business intelligence.
Today, Microsoft is “tripling down” on that product, according to its leader James Phillips.
The latest version is easier to get started with — the goal of the team was to let people sign up in 5 seconds, and get to real useful data within 5 minutes. Microsoft has also added a free version, and cut the price of the paid version to $US10 per user per month, down from anywhere between $US33 and $US50.
As Phillips puts it, “We are opening the floodgates.”
Phillips has a solid background in the world of “big data,” which is a buzzy term used to describe a set of technologies that makes it easier to collect and make sense of massive amounts of data generated by things like people visiting web pages, or sensors in millions of networked industrial devices.
Phillips was the founder and CEO of Couchbase, a popular database specifically used to store big data.
But Couchbase was focused on the back end, the nuts and bolts. He left Couchbase to join Microsoft in 2012, where his big goal is to build products that actually let people make sense of this flood of data.
The new version of Power BI is pretty impressive on that front.
Based on the demonstration we saw, you’ll be able to sign up simply by visiting Power BI.com and entering an email address. Once you’ve done that, you select the “Get Data” button and you’ll see a bunch of possible data sources, like Salesforce (where your company’s sales and customer data might be stored) and GitHub (which developers use to work on code, so you could see who your most productive coders are). It can also use data from publicly available records, such as data issued on government sites.
Here are some of the sources built right in, and there are also ways to connect to other data sources, although those might require more help from IT or developers:
Once you’re connected, you sign in to that data source with whatever credentials your company requires (like if you usually need a password and some kind of keycard, Power BI will require the same).
Once in, with some data from your company connected, you’ll be able to create beautiful charts like this one:
But wait, there’s more. You can drill down and create even more charts, like these:
If you come up with a chart that is particularly useful, you’ll be able to share it with anybody else who has access to the same data, simply by emailing them a link.
For instance, Phillips showed us a real-time traffic dashboard based on publicly available data from the Washington State Department of Transportation. He didn’t create it. A partner did, and made it freely available for anybody to use.
Obviously, people have been turning data into charts for decades.
But most of those older systems require a lot of set-up help from the IT department to connect to these data sources, and maybe help from a data scientist guru to figure out how to create the actual charts you want.
Other business intelligence companies like Tableau have made millions by making the process of analysing data easier, and there are startups like Good Data and Tidemark that are taking a similar approach.
But Microsoft is claiming that Power BI represents the third generation of data analytics, where anybody can get useful insights within five minutes.
We spoke to Marc Reguera, in Microsoft’s finance department, who has been using an early version of PowerBI and found it easy, after years of struggling with more complicated products. “I don’t have the technology barrier I used to have. As an analyst, I can focus on finding the key KPIs [performance indicators], then showcasing them.” He said that presentations now show up-to-date data, and they can answer complicated questions about a particular region’s sales mix, for instance.
All this looks deceptively simple, but behind the scenes it’s complicated: Microsoft or its partners have to figure out how to connect to each of those data sources, including some from companies who haven’t always been so cooperative, like Salesforce.
But Phillips says this is becoming less of a problem, because many of these companies specialize in their specific area — like Marketo for marketing automation — but aren’t really that interested in or capable of providing data analysis services on top of that information. It gets especially complicated when they have to combine data from their systems with data from other systems, which is what customers really want.
Microsoft is big enough, and committed enough to this space, that they’re willing to do the work to keep Power BI up to date.
And the mandate comes from the very top of the company.
One of Nadella’s core tenets is to help businesses “unlock insights to build data cultures inside companies” — in other words, instead of making business decisions based on blind guesses and instinct, companies can change their cultures to make better decisions based on what’s really happening out there.
Power BI is meant to help drive this change.