Verdict: Power BI Designer is a business dashboard and data management tool, and it seems Microsoft has at last realised there is an analytical world outside Excel. While Power BI Designer, at the time of writing, is still a work in progress, Microsoft has said that it will likely see more development than the pillars of Excel based analytics – namely Power Query, Power Pivot and Power View. The free subscription to Power BI Preview and the free download of Power BI Designer will seed it into a market desperate for easy to use data exploration and visualisation tools. Designer is easy to use and getting more functionality by the month – it’s going to be a big winner for Microsoft, busy embracing analytics of all types (the Revolution Analytics acquisition and Azure Machine Learning platform).
Power BI Designer is essentially a desktop data handling and visual analytics tool – bundled together. The extract, transform and load (ETL) capability is a major part of the product, allowing users to merge, clean, explore and transform their data into a useable form. In essence it unifies the Power BI Excel add-ins – Power Query, Power Pivot and PowerView. The charts and reports supported by Designer are placed onto a canvas to create dashboards, and although not as sophisticated as products like Tableau and Qlik, the product is still in the nursery and growing stronger with each of the frequent releases. It is also much, much less expensive than most other products (the free version obviously).
You would expect that Microsoft would major on supporting its own data formats and services, and of course it has. Azure databases and Excel are supported, but other easy to use connectors such as ODBC have already made an appearance.The Query view allows users to merge, transform and create calculated columns. Power Pivot automatic relationship detection has been implemented, and the number of charts and other types of visualisation already exceeds Power View.
Power BI Preview is the cloud based home for whatever reports, dashboards and data a user might want to share. The reports on Preview are HTML5 – useful for mobile viewing, and an iPAD native Power BI app is also available. Preview also allows editing of Designer created reports in a web browser.
So in summary, Designer allows users to create reports and manipulate data on the desktop, which can then be uploaded to Preview for sharing. For many people this will be so much easier than wrestling with Excel, and Microsoft should be congratulated on having the courage to leave its Excel safe haven. It will undoubtedly pay off, creating new competition for the dashboard technology suppliers who have flourished recently. But didn’t Microsoft always enter late (remember the browser wars) and clean up – for a while at least.