Microsoft expands Power BI's data analysis reach

New connectivity features and pricing expand Power BI's appeal beyond Office users -- and complicate its relationship with Salesforce

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When Microsoft debuted the browser-based Power BI data analytics and business intelligence service in July 2013, its scope was confined more or less to Office users. But given Microsoft's ambitions, that was guaranteed to change. Now it has, and Microsoft's relationship with Salesforce becomes more complicated.

Originally, Power BI was a self-service solution aimed at people working with everyday tools like Excel, rather than at BI experts. The latest batch of updates to Power BI connects it to a far wider range of services and provides a sizable slice of its functionality in return for nothing more than a business email address.

In a blog post written by Microsoft's James Phillips, the main new features are a slew of connectors for third-party data sources. Data analytics tend to center around where data already lives, so Microsoft touts Power BI as "hybrid by design," referring to the software's interoperability with local data via tools like Excel and with remote sources.

Power BI dashboard Microsoft

Among the improvements to Power BI is the ability to pull data from a wide range of sources, though data capacity will be limited for nonpaying users.

Among the new connectors available immediately are GitHub, Marketo, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Salesforce, SendGrid, and Zendesk. Connectors are planned shortly for Inkling Markets, Intuit, Microsoft Dynamics Marketing, Sage, Sumo Logic, Visual Studio Application Insights, Visual Studio Online, "and many more." GitHub's place in the lineup is both a nod to Microsoft's increased engagement with open source and recognition of GitHub's importance as a repository for data and code.

Microsoft also is attempting to make Power BI more competitive by expanding one of its foundational concepts: ease of use. A new tool, Power BI Designer, is touted as a way to "connect to, model and visually analyze [data] ... and effortlessly publish the results to any Power BI customer." The presentation end is further bolstered by Power BI apps for iPad, and later on for iPhone, Android, and Windows (what Microsoft describes as a "universal" version for both mobile and desktop).

Power BI is nominally aimed at enterprises willing to pay for the product. After Power BI's current version enters general availability, it will be split into two products: a free tier and a for-pay version priced at $9.99 per user, per month. The main differences between the tiers are data capacity, live data connectivity (daily vs. hourly refresh, for instance), and a clutch of enterprise-centric collaboration features.

With Salesforce as an external source that Power BI can now plug into, the partnership between Microsoft and the cloud CRM giant grows deeper, though largely to Microsoft's benefit. Granted, some of the outreach works both ways, as Salesforce gains connectivity to Microsoft's products such as SharePoint. But between the aggressive pricing of both Power BI and CRM Online, and the number of fronts Microsoft has to advance on compared to Salesforce, Redmond stands to post the most tangible gains from such connections.