Microsoft's BI interface has always been Office Excel, and it's no different with Power BI for Office 365. In the past, Microsoft has delivered in-memory data analysis in Excel with Power Pivot and advanced data visualization in Excel with Power View. The new cloud service introduces Power Query (formerly codenamed Data Explorer) and Power Map (formerly codenamed GeoFlow).
Power Query lets users search for, connect to and combine a variety of data sources from both internal and external public sources. A manager looking at internal revenue data, for example, might want to cross that information with a publicly available list of Fortune 500 companies to investigate sales success among large companies. Power Query searches across internal sources, the Azure Data Marketplace and more than 3 million known public data sources on the Internet so users can pick and choose relevant data to be combined in Excel.
[ Want more on non-Microsoft mobile options? Read Microsoft Touts Azure To iOS, Android Developers. ]
Users can help themselves and save sources of interest to a Private Data Catalog feature that's part of Power BI, but in the case of internal data it's not a free for all. IT uses a Data Management Gateway feature to manage connections to on-premises data in advance, ensuring proper refresh rates and, more importantly, access rights (in coordination with LDAP).
Power Query supports a mix of data types, including relational, structured and semi-structured, that might be found on internal systems or Hadoop clusters, on the Web or in the Windows Azure Marketplace.
The Power Map feature introduced with Power BI for Office 365 supports rich, 3-D data visualizations of geospatial and chronological data. You might do heat map visualizations, for example, to investigate registrations tied to an event. Or a franchise business might map sales results by location. The interface is Excel, but the visualizations appear on Microsoft Bing Maps.
Power BI for Office 365 supports collaboration with BI Sites, new BI-specific SharePoint sites where users can store and share their BI workbooks and reports. SharePoint site collections have long been used for collaborative BI, but there are a few new wrinkles with Power BI. First, BI Sites are supported with new mobile native apps for Windows 8, Windows RT, Surface and iOS iPad devices as well as HTML5 Web browser support for Android devices. The touch-optimized app interfaces are said to be akin to Power View, so between the visual navigation and mobile access, BI Sites open up broad collaborative possibilities.
Another new wrinkle is a natural language processing (NLP) query engine for BI Sites that's designed to provide more powerful, intuitive searching. Ask "How much revenue has product X generated in the last four years?," and you'll get a graph analysis in return.
Microsoft also has broadened the ability to manage and monitor data sets and analyses. Where IT has had access to SharePoint site stats on how often data sets and reports were accessed and viewed (so IT could retire unused sites), with BI Sites this data is accessible to end users, so they can see and draw from popular data sources, reports and analyses.
Power BI for Office 365 is set for community technology preview release this summer. General release is slated for later this year, though Microsoft declined to say what month or quarter. Pricing has not been disclosed but will be on per-user, per-month basis.
Microsoft execs said the timing is right for Power BI because Office 365 has flourished, with one quarter of all Microsoft Enterprise customers now subscribing to some level of cloud services. That performance has make Office 365 the fastest product to reach $1 billion in revenue in the company's history, according to Microsoft.