For a software that came around 40 years ago, Microsoft Excel sure has managed to remain more than just relevant. Despite the emergence of more sophisticated Business Intelligence, or BI, tools which are designed to process much larger volumes of data in very little time, data analysts have clung on to Microsoft Excel as their go-to BI tool.
In addition, there is more coming up that will freshen the application and could potentially threaten the BI market. The Microsoft and OpenAI partnership has opened up the potential for adding new AI capabilities to Excel.
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Integration of GPT into Excel
Earlier, following Microsoft’s exclusive licence to OpenAI’s flagship GPT-3 model in September 2021, the company decided to employ the LLM in Power Fx, Microsoft’s low-code programming language for converting text into code using natural language transformation. For the unaware, Power Fx is the software giant’s open-source language for low code that is based on Microsoft Excel.
In January this year, The Information released a report stating that Microsoft had started experimenting with integrating a version of GPT—which hasn’t been specified yet—into its Word, PowerPoint, Outlook and Excel applications. While there is still little clarity around what the exact features will be and if they will see an eventual launch, the assumption is that GPT will work on improving autocompletion and more refined search for users.
Since the noisy arrival of ChatGPT, the word on the street is that Microsoft is also planning to integrate the chatbot into its products, including Excel. Needless to say, ChatGPT can do a lot for these applications—it can generate text from very basic language prompts and thus suggest email replies and analyse data on Excel sheets.
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Numerous experts have already figured out ways to leverage a seamless functioning between the two—“ChatGPT as an Excel copilot is just bafflingly good. Ask nicely, and it will reduce your most verbose formulas to their simplest possible expressions without affecting the output,” Ben Cmejla, an investor with a firm called @thegp, tweeted.
Another tech investor, Puneet Kumar, tweeted saying that the possibilities of this could be “crazy powerful” and he believed that Microsoft could “monetise on these add-ons in enterprise tech in no time.”
Microsoft’s advantage in a hyper-competitive BI market
Microsoft could also benefit from increasingly serious competition in the business intelligence segment. Robert Janezic, the founder of the Tableau UI Kit, discussed how Microsoft’s host of legacy clients and pre-existing ecosystem in addition to newer entrants in the BI market could pull business away from Tableau to Microsoft’s Power BI.
In a much-spoken-about Twitter thread, Janezic wrote: “In the coming three–five years, I believe Tableau will lose more and more market share to Power BI (…) The Microsoft business ecosystem is nearly unstoppable. Think about the foundational apps companies use. Word, Powerpoint, Excel, Outlook. Office 365 is an all-in-one bundle. Remember, it’s not just the tool that’s important. It’s the ecosystem.”
In other words, Microsoft Excel wasn’t just helping itself, it was also favouring Power BI’s case and drawing clients away from other major BI players.
Aside from the severe competition, there’s another factor that is currently disrupting the BI sector. “Since most companies are still going through cloud transformation, there are a host of cloud service providers which are also offering their own versions of these tools, which is why enterprises simply take the entire package from their clients instead of purchasing these tools from a third-party again,” Dr Vaibhav Kumar, senior director of the Association of Data Scientists, explained.
Why do data analysts love Excel?
Data analysts love the self-sufficiency of spreadsheets—it’s familiar and satisfying to arrive at an answer on your own without calling BI tools for help. So much so that surveys have found that while exploring the datasets, 62% of people use Excel because of the flexibility it offers and its easy usage. It isn’t just non-technical users—88% of the people writing SQL still use Excel while exploring data.
“Excel is simply inevitable. There are some very obvious advantages to it, like how it’s open-source, easy to use and lightweight. Excel can do a lot without plugins and even with very few installations. It is also completely logic-based and is mostly no-code,” Dr Kumar added.
“BI tools haven’t really been able to replace Excel because analysts complete their initial set-up of data on it. Whenever we preprocess data, we upload it on Excel before working on Tableau or Power BI. Tableau itself has an option to upload data on Excel. So, it will remain as a supplement to BI tools at least for basic and intermediate-level functions. Though they don’t constantly keep updating the software—it’s only done every two to three years. But lately they have been adding more features—there are many more free extensions and macroOS features in the real-time,” Dr Kumar explained.
As the rest of the BI segment is riddled with external factors that are detrimental to their progress and while we wait and see how much more powerful Excel could get after the integration of GPT models, Microsoft might be perfectly placed for a win-win in the BI market.