I'd like to revisit an old article which is still very relevant today. Thanks to Jen Underwood in SQL Server BI Blog for this amazing article.
Love it or hate it, export to Excel is still the most specified requirement in contemporary analytic tool selections, despite all the advances in business intelligence (BI) technologies. Excel is comfortable, flexible and with the new Microsoft Office 365 Excel Power BI add-ins (Power Query, Power Pivot, and Power Map), it's growing to become exponentially more powerful—pun intended. With the latest Microsoft strategy shift of embedding self-service BI applications right within Excel, could Microsoft's Excel Power BI release become a BI "killer app?"
Killer apps take the market by storm. Microsoft Excel was the spreadsheet killer app of the 90's, eliminating VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, Quattro Pro, and many other players. According to Forrester's Q3 2013 Global Productivity Suite survey, Microsoft Office had a dominant, 95 percent or more, market share in the productivity software market. Through the years, we've seen a few productivity suites introduced including OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Google Docs, and Apple's iWork, yet none have been widely embraced. Over a billion people around the world use Excel today, far more users than any other BI vendor can claim. The Excel reach advantage is undeniably huge.
Microsoft Office Continues to Dominate
On the other hand, the inevitable shift to the cloud and browser-based apps, could level the playing field. In 2014, Google Docs is no longer a curiosity but rather a legitimate future threat to Microsoft Office. Google Docs has more chart options than Excel, a richer API, and predictive features already in beta. You never hear about Google Docs for analytics, but it's silently making a few substantial strides. Google and Microsoft are both mega-vendors. Anything is possible, but what is likely to happen?
In the Forrester survey cited earlier, most firms that deployed Google Docs are still using Microsoft Office due to employee needs, resistance to change, and technical compatibility issues with things like pervasive Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). Despite widespread marketing and increased interest in Google's offerings, Microsoft Office continues to dominate. Excel is still at the heart of business decision-making today and it's not easy to leave.
Excel in the BI World
Business users may love Excel, but in the professional BI world, it carries emotional baggage. Countless data warehouses and reporting applications have been built with the intent of removing Excel risks and dreaded "spreadmarts." Excel has been blamed for high profile analytic disasters such as JPMorgan's $6 billion trading loss. Keep in mind, people make mistakes using many tools—not just Excel—yet Excel remains an extremely popular attack target.
Quite a few data discovery and BI vendors advertise anti-Excel messaging in one way, shape, or form. Since Excel is where most analytic tasks are performed today, if Microsoft makes the right investment decisions and quickly executes, popular data discovery applications are most at-risk and they know it. Reviewing an admittedly subjective list of top requested data discovery tool capabilities, Excel Power BI already arguably meets or exceeds more than half of them and rapid releases new features monthly.
Data discovery requirements typically are business user driven requirements (a.k.a. the masses). If Excel can meet most data discovery requirements, why would you buy another stand-alone tool?
Currently, Excel 2010, the version most organizations have deployed, and even Excel 2013 Power BI, have key data discovery gaps. Excel 2013 is getting a lot better, but has not been displacing the data discovery vendors on a global scale, yet. Right now, Excel and Power View often get dismissed based on visualization capabilities, an area that users highly value in data discovery tools selections. Excel Power BI will continue to improve and could certainly become "good enough" for most business users in an organization if the visual analytics features vastly improve. Timely customer migration to latest Microsoft Office versions are a pre-requisite for potential data discovery market disruption. In the meantime, all of the data discovery vendors are in sales overdrive trying to secure as much market share as possible, offering free personal solutions and pitching a story of better analytics for the masses. To stay relevant in the future, they'll need to convert freemium users to paid subscriptions and offer much more compelling, differentiated solutions than they do right now.
An Exciting Time for BI Applications
It's an exciting time for Microsoft Office 365, Excel Power BI, and other BI applications. Looking ahead, we'll continue to see more innovations around information search, automation, cognitive contextual computing, predictive, and personalized analytics. Watching how those future trends are being brought to the masses via Excel and other platforms is fun! Office 365 Excel Power BI, Q&A, and Power Query are just the beginning of a significant BI and data discovery industry transformation. Controversial or not, Excel might not be the next killer BI app per se, but rather the next data discovery killer app in a few years. What do you think?
Ian Littlejohn worked as a Management Consultant for 15 years and is passionate about teaching business people to analyze data and understand business data.