Is Power BI the new Excel

I could make this blog really short and boring by simply answering my own question with NO! certainly not right now!

However there are enough similarities and overlaps between the two technologies to still make this a valid and worthwhile question to explore.

Desktop and browser options

excelsmallExcel is installed on just about every Windows desktop out there, and indeed others, and Excel is by far the most used BI tool on the market today.

Excel also features Excel Services / Excel Web App (now called Office Online Server) which provides Excel functionality in the browser – users of SharePoint will almost certainly have used one or both of these at some point.

powerbismallPower BI features the Power BI Desktop tool, which is installed on the local machine, and the Power BI Cloud Service (accessed via the browser). Content created in Power BI Desktop (Data Sets and Reports) can be published to the Cloud Service which allows content created in Power BI Desktop to be viewed and used within the browser. Content can also be created directly in the Cloud Service (Data Sets, Report and Dashboards).

Power Query, Power Pivot and Power View

excelsmallWithin Excel 2013 and Excel Office 365 there are a number of “Power” add-ins that turn Excel into a more comprehensive BI tool.

Power Query is an ETL tool that allows a developer to connect to data, transform data and load data into Excel tables (or directly into a Power Pivot data model).

Power Pivot is a data modelling and cube creation tool that allows a developer to create a data model (a tabular cube equivalent for SQL folk) to make report creation quicker and easier.

Power View is a data visualisation tool that developers and end users alike can use to quickly and easily create attractive and interactive reports and dashboards.

powerbismallPower BI features all of the above, but they aren’t necessarily labelled as such.

In Power BI we use Power Query and Power Pivot equivalents to connect to, transform and model data. This result is called a Data Set.

We then use the Power View equivalent to create Power BI Reports and Dashboards. In fact Power BI’s report creation tool is an advanced version of Power View, but runs in HTML 5 rather than Silverlight and features some new data visualisations including Gauges, Funnels and Tree maps (to name just a few).

The differences!

excelsmallpowerbismallSo clearly there are many similarities between Excel and Power BI, and there are some things here that do suggest Power BI is the new Excel.

However; what Power BI does not offer, at present at least, is spreadsheets and pivot tables – the former is certainly something most of us could not imagine a world without; and some will say the same about the latter as well.

The beauty of a spreadsheet is we can select, use and reference each individual cell if we need to; Whereas data visualisation tools such as Power BI (and Excel Power View) are generally used in conjunction with relational data models – where each item of data (fact, measure and dimension) is available as a block (one complete column or one complete row).

This block approach makes producing reports much quicker and easier. The price we pay however is the loss of that individual cell functionality – and this I believe is the primary reason why so many end users continue to use spreadsheets rather than specialist data visualisation tools; and even export data from these to spreadsheets.

Users like the familiarity and perceived flexibility that Excel spreadsheets offer – which is fine but we need to make sure Excel is used in this way for the right reasons, not simply out of habit or due to a lack of training and understanding.


excelsmallpowerbismallWell I presented the conclusion in the first sentence of this post, but here’s a bit more explanation.

To become the new Excel, Power BI would need to feature spreadsheet and pivot table functionality. However I believe Microsoft are very unlikely to add these to Power BI and will instead choose to keep Power BI as a data visualisation tool – used for creating attractive and interactive reports and dashboards.

I see Power BI as your primary data visualisation tool and Excel as your primary deep dive analytical tool (spreadsheets and pivot tables). I believe this is Microsoft’s official stance on this as well. The two working side by side should cover most if not all requirements. Indeed we can even connect Power BI to data that resides in Excel and we can export data from Power BI to Excel if we need to.

It will be interesting to see if over time Microsoft remove some of the “Power” add-ins from Excel; certainly Power View and possibly Power Pivot. However it’s very unlikely that Power Query will be removed from Excel as this isn’t even an add-in anymore, it’s an integral part of Excel.

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