Power BI is Microsoft’s solution for business intelligence, and on a more functional level it’s a software platform made up of several components that help businesses go beyond the traditional capabilities of Microsoft Excel and facilitates the sharing and presentation of near real-time data to support decision making.
We’ll explain what Power BI stands for, what it actually does, and briefly go over the history of business intelligence solutions from Microsoft to help understand the ecosystem that Power BI is a part of.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
What Does Power BI Stand For?
The term Power BI stands for Power Business Intelligence. The first part of the name refers to the Microsoft Power Platform, a set of low-code business automation tools. The second part of the name Business intelligence (BI) is a technology-driven process for analyzing data and presenting information for business leaders to base decisions on.
What is the Microsoft Power Platform?
Power BI is part of the Microsoft Power Platform, which includes a suite of business applications that are designed to solve common business problems without requiring users to know advanced computer programming techniques. The platform is made up of the following software components:
- Power BI – Business reporting and analytics platform.
- Power Apps – Low-Code web forms and business applications
- Power Automate – Process automation, approval workflows, and low-code system integration
- Power Virtual Agents – No-code chat bots that can utilize AI like ChatGPT to answer questions
- Power Pages – Internal or external webpage builder that supports Microsoft Sign In capabilities
Each one of these pieces of software solves a distinct business problem. However, as the ecosystem has evolved Microsoft has increasingly made an effort to integrate the systems together.
For example, you can view a report in Power BI that shows financial results, inside of the report is a form made in Power Apps that collects feedback from users. If an error is noticed, a change can be requested in the Power App, then routed to an Accounting Manager for approval with Power Automate.
How is Power BI Different from Excel?
To understand how Power BI fits into the Microsoft ecosystem of products, it helps to understand the history of business intelligence and data analytics at Microsoft.
Microsoft’s journey into modern data analytics began with the introduction of the Excel Power Pivot add-in. It allowed users to perform data analysis on large datasets that were too big to work with in a standard Excel sheet and create sophisticated data models right that connected different tables and spreadsheets.
Recognizing the growing demand for more advanced analytics and visualization tools, Microsoft evolved Power Pivot into a more robust, standalone platform: Power BI. Launched in 2015, Power BI was designed to provide greater scalability, additional data connectivity options, and advanced data visualization capabilities.
Advantages of Power BI Over Excel
Along with being newer, there are a number of capabilities that Power BI brings to the table which makes it more modern and useful tool than Microsoft Excel for many businesses.
- Data Handling and Performance – Power BI is optimized to handle large datasets for better performance.
- Data Visualization – Charts and graphs can be drilled into, explored, and interacted with
- Data Connectivity – Connects to a wider range of data sources, including cloud-based sources.
- Real-Time Data Processing – Supports real-time data processing and reporting.
- Collaboration and Sharing – Facilitates easy sharing and collaboration of reports and dashboards.
- Advanced Analytics – Provides AI-powered features for more advanced analytics.
The following Guy in a Cube video goes over Power BI, what it is, what it isn’t, and explains a lot of the key features that people should be interested in if they’re coming from an Excel world.
It’s worth noting too that this video is from 2021, and while the content is mostly true, Microsoft aggressively updates Power BI on a monthly basis so there are many new and exciting features that have come out since then and are in the pipeline today.
Will Power BI Replace Excel?
It’s unlikely that Power BI or any other tool will fully replace Excel. It’s been estimated that Microsoft Excel has a user base of 1 billion people worldwide. Excel is also still the cornerstone of the accounting world, and even after decades of enhancements in financial accounting and planning software many Fortune 500 corporations still perform analysis and even their top-level consolidations using Excel spreadsheets.
A Brief History of Microsoft Business Intelligence Solutions
To better understand Microsoft Power BI, it’s useful to understand the history of business intelligence solutions. Power BI is one of the most modern business intelligence tools available today, but it has its roots in the first version of Microsoft Excel all the way back in 1985 and builds on technologies like SQL Server Analysis Services.
Recent updates have seen the Power BI platform become blended with more traditional enterprise features for data integration, machine learning, data lake storage, and data science tools under the Microsoft Fabric umbrella which continues to eevolve.
- 1985: Microsoft introduces Microsoft Excel for the Apple Macintosh, later published for Windows in 1987, becomes the starting point for many modern business intelligence and analysis applications.
- Early 1990s: Microsoft’s journey into business intelligence began with the introduction of OLAP (Online Analytical Processing) tools in SQL Server.
- 2000: Introduction of SQL Server 2000, which included Analysis Services, a tool for building OLAP cubes and data mining.
- 2005-2008: SQL Server 2005 and 2008 brought enhancements to Analysis Services and introduced Reporting Services and Integration Services, expanding capabilities in data integration, analysis, and reporting.
- 2010: PowerPivot for Excel was introduced, marking a significant shift towards self-service BI. It allowed users to perform powerful data analysis within Excel, using large datasets.
- 2011: Launch of Power View in SQL Server 2012, adding more advanced data visualization and dashboarding capabilities to the Microsoft BI stack.
- 2013: Power Query, Power Map, and Power Pivot became available in Excel 2013, further integrating BI capabilities directly into Excel.
- 2015: Official launch of Power BI as a standalone product. It was a cloud-based service, allowing users to create, share, and consume business insights in new and dynamic ways.
- 2016: Introduction of Power BI Desktop, a free application that provided powerful data exploration, shaping, modeling, and creating reports with highly interactive visualizations.
- 2017-2018: Continuous updates and feature enhancements to Power BI, including integration with AI and machine learning, introduction of Power BI Report Server for on-premises reporting, and Power BI Premium for larger scale deployments.
- 2019-2020: Further integration of Power BI with other Microsoft products like Azure and Teams, and enhancements in dataflows, data protection, and larger dataset handling.
- 2021-2023: Continued evolution with more advanced AI capabilities, improved data visualization tools, and further refinements to Power BI’s user interface and user experience. Increased emphasis on enterprise-level features and integration with other enterprise systems.
In some circles it can feel like Power BI has been around for a long time. However, one of its biggest competitors, Tableau was first released in 2003 making it almost ancient by comparison and in computer terms. For comparison, Microsoft Excel 2003 had a row limit of 65,536 rows at that time and one of the biggest feature announcements were more advanced pivot tables.
It will certainly be exciting to see where power BI goes from here as Microsoft continues to invest heavily in the platform.
Microsoft Power BI, from its humble beginnings as an Excel add-in, has grown into a full-fledged business intelligence platform. As the platform continues to evolve, integrations with the Power Platform will continue to progress and as Microsoft Fabric evolves the distinction between data modeling, data analysis, and data science will continue to be blurred adding new feature sets to Power BI that will give it a bright and versatile future.