Although Microsoft has not yet given us an official roadmap for its Power BI offering, I believe it is not beyond the realm of reason to share some educated and uneducated guesses about where the Power BI Designer might fit in.
Philosophically speaking, I have heard two opinions about Microsoft creating a standalone tool that combined all Power BI aspects:
- Data acquisition
- Data transformation
- Sharing and collaboration (maybe???)
On one hand, some pundits state that this is an unwise decision because it devalues a very strong self-service BI message that Microsoft has very successfully relied on before – everybody uses Excel and, therefore, it makes perfect sense just to enhance Excel with additional BI capabilities.
On the other hand, some believe that bundling all plugins in Excel creates a confusing end-user experience, therefore, having everything integrated into one app may enable the team to create a more cohesive interface.
I can argue both ways depending on how much Starbucks I had in the morning, however, realistically, I don’t believe either of those arguments is very significant because, regardless of the two, Microsoft, in my opinion, has absolutely no choice but to make Power BI Designer the default option for desktop Power Bi development.
These are the three main reasons for me thinking that way:
- 32 vs 64 bit Office debacle – let’s face it, if you work for a large organization, using Power Pivot in a 32 Bit Excel can be a very frustrating experience because of 32 bit software memory limitations. Migrating to 64 bit is not that simple because a lot of vendors that develop Excel plugins for their applications (SAP, Hyperion, etc.) do not have a 64 Bit version available. And even when plugins are not the issue, Microsoft itself makes the decision to deploy 64 bit version of Office almost impossible for most organizations because it routinely recommends that companies standardize on the 32 Bit version. Having a separate 64 Bit application that can be deployed alongside 32 Bit Office solves this problem
- Speed of innovation – having a hard dependency on Excel (and therefore, Office) introduces two negative dynamics. First, from an internal perspective, the Office team seems to be very focused on delivering mobile versions of the product as well as the cloud. Unfortunately, that may not be 100% in sync with where the Power BI direction is. At the same time, externally, Office serves a much bigger role for most organizations than just BI, therefore, IT is not comfortable with deploying new features at a rapid pace. Having a standalone product solves both problems as it minimizes impact from IT perspective and removes dependency on other teams at Microsoft that may not be 100% aligned with Power BI priorities and roadmap
- Quality – I don’t think I will reveal any earth shattering insight by stating that stability of Excel leaves much to be desired. I don’t necessarily blame Microsoft for it, although, ultimately, I don’t know where to pass the buck from here. This is a highly complex issue and I am not even going to try to come up with ways to fix it. Let’s just start fresh, build a standalone application where customers have one team to point to for quality and one team to be accountable for it.
So, it appears that strategically, Power BI Designer will/should become one of the most important Power BI artifacts. The questions is, however, should you start playing with this product right now? Unfortunately, there is an overwhelmingly long list of reasons to say no. At the time of this writing, the single most important one being Power BI Designer’s inability to create measures and calculated columns.
However, being an optimist that I am, I am going to go ahead and recommend that you do start incorporating this product into your toolbox of technologies. Today, there are three reasons to do it:
- New visualizations – the Designer has parity of visualizations with the report designer available in PowerBI.com (gauges, Tree-maps, combo charts, etc.) making it possible to familiarize oneself with the new features without having to be online
- Many to Many relationships – we can now finally model that very common scenario in Microsoft BI stack without having to write much DAX (you can find a quick tutorial here)
- 64 bit – as I said before, if you are stuck in 32 Bit Office and are trying to do simple analysis on a large data set, Power BI Designer may not be a bad option if all you are trying to do is SUMs and Counts
It is safe to assume that Microsoft will close the existing Power BI Designer gaps, I just hope that it happens sooner rather than later… the good things is that it appears that the company does not really have much of a choice.