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Latest Power BI update focuses on ease of use

Featuring new natural language generation and data modeling capabilities, the latest Power BI platform upgrade aims to help organizations develop a data-driven culture.

With ease of use a key tenet in the drive to help organizations develop a data-driven culture, Microsoft unveiled a significant new Power BI update.

The Redmond, Wash., tech giant, revealed the update, which includes over 20 new features, on May 6 during its virtually held Business Applications Summit. Eight of the new features are now generally available, while five will be available later this month and 10 later in 2020, Microsoft said.

The Power BI update, according to a Microsoft blog post, attempts to enable the development of a data-driven culture by adding more augmented intelligence capabilities to the vendor's analytics platform, helping organizations scale their business intelligence operations within one platform through data lineage and other capabilities, and weaving BI into the fabric of the organization by embedding analytics features into tools like Teams and Excel.

Given the scale of the Power BI update and its existing popularity, analysts said the new features add significant vitality to the platform.

"All of these announcements are important steps that Microsoft is taking to further cement themselves as leaders in this space," said Mike Leone, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "They are not resting on their laurels. They're further empowering all users to effectively bring data to their jobs on their terms."

Doug Henschen, principal analyst at Constellation Research, also said the Power BI update adds notable new capabilities to an already widely used platform.

"Microsoft has delivered a truly impressive collection of updates, and the scale of the Power BI community continues to grow," he said.

An organization's transaction data is displayed on a sample PowerPoint for Data dashboard.
A PowerPoint for Data dashboard displays an organization's transaction data.

Henschen cautioned, however, that many of the new features are designed to work only with other Microsoft tools.

"The announcements in total struck me as a bit insular and aimed at a Microsoft-only world," he said. "For example, I very much like the theme of embedding Power BI insights where decisions are made -- which is a direction all BI and analytics vendors need to go -- but all of the embedding options presented were Microsoft products and services, from Power Apps/Power Automate, to Office, Excel and Teams. I'd like to hear at least a nod to how Power BI works in and is open to a heterogeneous world."

Key new features that add AI capabilities include smart narratives, a natural language generation (NLG) tool that will allow report authors to add interactive narratives that are automatically generated by Power BI and give end users explanations about their constantly updated data, and a new mobile report authoring capability that will give report authors new tools to create mobile versions of their existing reports.

Features aimed at helping organizations scale their business include new enterprise semantic modeling capabilities such as shared and certified data sets that help users build reports based on trusted data and data lineage analysis to enable users to understand where their data came from and how it's been modeled through its lifecycle.

And lastly, among the features designed to weave BI into the fabric of an organization is PowerPoint for Data, which provides prebuilt templates for building and laying out report pages; the ability to connect to Power BI data sets without leaving Excel; and the addition of Power BI tab and preview links to Teams.

Perhaps the two features that stood out most to the analysts were the new NLG and data modeling capabilities.

All of these announcements are important steps that Microsoft is taking to further cement themselves as leaders in this space. They are not resting on their laurels.
Mike LeoneSenior analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

"I recognize it's a sneak peak, but smart narratives sounds fantastic," Leone said. "I'm viewing this as a doubling down of sorts to AI explainability. By taking a data champion, having them narrate their findings and rationale, and then handing them over to the masses is an incredibly powerful way to spur creativity and ideas on ways to interact with the data."

Henschen similarly cited the improved NLG prowess included in the Power BI update as a key new feature. Regarding the new data modeling features, he noted that Microsoft is addressing a problem that arose with the advent of self-service analytics. With multiple users within an organization modeling and analyzing the same data at their own workstation, there were multiple interpretations of the data.

The Power BI update -- which came as competitor Tableau also updated its platform last week -- aims to better standardize the modeling process.

"With [last] week's announcements, they're raising the bar to promote consistency and reuse," Henschen said. "Power BI's new Composite model capability will enable users to start with data that is already modeled without crimping their freedom to explore and add new data. They're extending that model in a way that will promote productivity and reuse without breaking anything."

Leone, meanwhile, said that the data modeling capabilities address trust. By making the models more consistent, they promote a level of trust in the underlying data that didn't previously exist.

"If you lack trust in the underlying data, the outcomes don't matter," he said. "To further drive usage of BI tools, vendors must ensure trust, and ... the announcements are about ensuring the highest level of trust and visibility into the who, what, where, when, why, and how of data."

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