Summary:

Microsoft is working some impressive new features into Power BI, its Excel add-on for Office 365 that’s focused on making analytics easier. Among the capabilities announced on Wednesday were natural-language search and visualizations, and new and improved maps.

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Say what you will about Microsoft Office 365, but it’s actually turning into a pretty good place to analyze data. The latest improvements, which the company announced on Wednesday, include natural language search and improved geocoding capabilities.

Much of the new goodness is part of Microsoft’s Power BI service, a collaboration and visualization platform that’s delivered via Excel and is still in a limited preview mode. As the video below shows, PowerBI’s new natural language search capability lets users ask for data in an intuitive manner, and even specify how they’d like to see it displayed. As a user types, different data and visualizations pop up based on what they’ve entered.

Microsoft has also added a bunch of small updates to its GeoFlow feature, which we covered in April and which Microsoft is now calling Power Map. It’s a Power BI add-on that automatically geocodes and displays geospatial and temporal data in 3-D using Bing Maps. One of its bigger highlights is the ability to create “interactive tours” that show how the data evolve over time and place.

The company’s other big Power BI improvement on Wednesday is an expanded set of sources and capabilities for Power Query, a feature for finding, cleaning and merging datasets. The most unique thing about Power Query, to me, is that it helps users find datasets from external sources such as Data.gov, the Windows Azure Marketplace and Wikipedia.

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A sample Power Map visualization.

Admittedly, I’m no expert on the difference between Google Apps for Business and Office 365 (in fact, I’ve never used the latter), but there appears to be a significant difference in how the companies are approaching each with regard to data analysis. While Google’s spreadsheet function has basic capabilities, the company seems to leave much of the coolest functionality to developer-focused API services or works-in-progress like Fusion Tables.

Microsoft, meanwhile, appears to be targeting some pretty powerful features at anyone who can use Excel. It’s only a small portion of a bigger collaboration battle that spans email, word processing, video conferencing and other applications, looking like the better option for business-oriented tasks like analytics can’t hurt Microsoft’s cause. Power BI might even help the company keep some business away from next-generation analytics vendors such as Tableau, which helped establish a name for itself thanks to ease of use and high-quality visualization.

None of this does a whole lot to bolster the fate of Windows or Microsoft’s mobile strategy, of course, but at least it’s a sign the company’s application business might be able to remain strong as it shifts into the cloud.

For a broader take on Microsoft’s cloud strategy, check out my talk with Microsoft CTO of Cloud and Enterprise Dave Campbell at our recent Structure: Europe conference.

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