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With a rapid release schedule that enables it to keep up with emerging trends, Microsoft's Power BI platform remains a powerful and respected business intelligence suite.
While many vendors issue quarterly updates, Microsoft rolls out minor updates to Power BI on a weekly basis and more comprehensive updates each month. And that flexibility and attention to detail has helped the Power BI platform stay current while some other longtime BI vendors battle the perception that their platforms have fallen behind the times.
Most recently, in December, Microsoft added to Power BI an updated connector to its Azure Data Lake repository, a new connector to the Power Platform application platform and new data visualization formats.
"I think they're leading the pack, and they're putting a lot of pressure on Tableau," said Wayne Eckerson, president of Eckerson Group, referring to the Microsoft Power BI competitor, which was acquired last year by Salesforce. "The philosophy of a new release every week in itself puts a lot of pressure on Tableau."
In addition, Eckerson noted, the Power BI platform's built-in ability to integrate with other Microsoft platforms -- as evidenced by the new connectors -- gives it a significant advantage over BI platforms offered by some independent vendors.
Wayne EckersonPresident, Eckerson Group
"It's part of the Azure platform and tightly integrated with SQL Server Integration Services, Data Factory, and SQL Server Reporting Services," Eckerson said. "Most importantly, it has a data model behind it -- or semantic layer as we have called it."
Beyond the updates, a recent focus of the Power BI platform has been data protection.
Arun Ulagaratchagan, general manager of Power BI, said that all vendors have some level of data protection, but as users export data outside of their BI products and across their organizations, the BI system can no longer secure the data.
Microsoft is trying to change that with Power BI, he said.
"We're adding data protection to Power BI, integrating it with Microsoft Data Protection," Ulagaratchagan said. "It secures the data when it's exported out of Power BI so that only people who have been given prior authority can access it."
Despite Microsoft's ability to update the Power BI platform on an almost constant basis, its capabilities aren't viewed as the most innovative on the market.
Those capabilities are in line with the features other vendors are offering, but with Power BI, Microsoft is not necessarily introducing revolutionary technology that the rest of the market needs to react to or get left behind, analysts said.
Instead, Power BI is seen as quickly reactive to trends within the analytics space and to new features first released by other vendors.
"All of their recent updates have been incremental – there hasn't been anything particularly exciting," said Donald Farmer, principal at TreeHive Strategy. "It's good work, but it's incremental, which is as it should be."
Similarly, Eckerson noted that while the updates are important, they don't feature much that will force other vendors to respond.
"There's all kinds of small stuff, which is important if you're using the tool," he said.
Where Microsoft is moving the market forward, and appears to be forcing competitors to respond, is Azure Synapse Analytics, which launched in preview November.
Synapse attempts to joins data warehousing and data analytics in a single cloud service and integrates with both Power BI and Azure Machine Learning. Essentially, Synapse is the next step in the evolution of Azure SQL Data Warehouse.
"Synapse is where Microsoft has been innovative and made a big bet," Farmer said.
Beyond placing an emphasis -- from the perspective of innovation -- on Synapse rather than the Power BI platform, Farmer noted that Power BI simply doesn't need to be the most spectacular BI suite on the market.
Users of the Power BI platform often don't seek it out the same way as they do other BI tools. Instead, many simply use Power BI because they're Windows users and Power BI comes with Windows.
"It's essentially a default option, but it's a good default option," Farmer said. "Tableau, for example, is a tool of choice. … [Microsoft] is not setting the world alight with innovation. Instead, their efforts are on integration with other Microsoft applications, and that's where they're interesting."
While Microsoft doesn't publicly disclose its product roadmap, Ulagaratchagan said BI for mobile devices, the ability to handle larger and larger data sets, and embedded analytics are important trends as BI advances, as is the idea of openness and trust with data.
"That's an area where we have an advantage," Ulagaratchagan asserted. "We can steal from the Azure team and take that and make it easy to use for our end users and citizen data scientists. We want to get data in the hands of everyone."