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Microsoft & The Tower of Babel - Oz du Soleil

The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)

tower of babelThe whole world had one language and common speech. As people migrated eastward, they settled in the land of Shinar. People there sought to make bricks and mortar to build a city with a tower that reaches into the heavens, to make a name for themselves; otherwise, they’d be scattered over the world.

God came down to look at the city and tower, and said that as one people with one language, nothing that would be impossible for them to accomplish. God went down and confounded their speech, so that they could not understand each other, and scattered them over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. Thus the city was called Babel.

Hold on. I’m not getting religious. Today’s blogpost goes over the latest developments with Microsoft Office 365 and the mixed feelings that some of us have about Microsoft’s latest methods and objectives. If feels like Microsoft has dumped out a bunch of pieces and parts, Mr. Potato Head style, that aren’t integrated and they’re selectively available.

Microsoft is confounding the speech of developers such that it’s getting tough for us to communicate.
And the only reference that makes sense is the Tower of Babel.

 ♦ ♦ ♦

Last week, I was talking with a fellow Excel developer about new features in 2013. He’d seen several articles and videos but hadn’t played with it yet. I, however, have been playing with it for months and was up on some of the latest unveilings, especially the Data Model feature.

My friend voiced a concern that Excel is going beyond it’s spreadsheet core and overlapping with databases and data-mining tools. Sure, it’s great to be able to create a data model but aren’t we talking relational database lingo, and shouldn’t we leave that to true databases? Before we try to answer that question, he and I shared a fundamental concern: the ability to train people and share knowledge.

With Microsoft offering so many products, packages, and pricing schedules, and the way they’re being rolled out, I fear that the result will be less of a community and more isolation where there hasn’t been. The concern is further highlighted at the PowerPivotPro blog where Rob Collie wrote an Open Letter to My Friends At Microsoft. It’s an invitation for Microsoft to think about why Excel is the world’s #1 BI tool.

  1. Other BI tools are 1-trick ponies. Excel can be a timesheet, chess game, project management tool, dashboard, calorie counter, Sudoku game, 3-D design tool, web-scraper, inventory management system, budget analyzer, etc. But if you go spend $12/mo on a web-based timesheet, all you get is a timesheet with features that you’ve got little control over.
  2. The tight integration of features on Excel’s underlying grid allows Excel to be as malleable as it is, and makes it fairly easy to get help. We don’t have to dig into the proprietary guts of someone’s 1-trick pony to get support, or wait for their email tech support to maybe get back to us. The Excel community is widespread wonderfully supportive.
  3. COMMUNITY! Excel developers are great with supporting each other. Even the elites like Bill Jelen (Mr. Excel), Rob Collie and Bruce McPherson are great folks. responsive and very helpful.

Given all of that, the stick-it-on-somewhere Mr Potato Head introduction of the latest Excel/Office 365 features are upsetting the integration, the community, and the usefulness of the new features. Case in point: My experience trying to upgrade my version of Excel.

Microsoft tower of Babel


After seeing what people were doing with Excel’s Power View, I was on a mission to drop my formula-driven dashboards and go for the elegance and simplicity of Power View. Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t do a good job of explaining that Power View is only on Excel versions that are Office 365 ProPlus. Once that truth was discovered, fine! I’ll just upgrade.

Oh Lord! Let the gnashing of teeth commence.

The developers in my communities hadn’t upgraded before so, they weren’t able to help. They either went straight for ProPlus or had no need for it. But I went ahead and here’s what it took:

  • 4 days
  • 2 complete uninstalls of Office 365 Home Premium
  • 16 Microsoft Support folks

One of the 16 techs got us close. We installed ProPlus but she didn’t recognize the interface for getting it activated. We re-installed Home Premium and she arranged for someone else to call me. One non-intuitive step that the final tech figured out … just as he was about to give up, he threw a hail Mary pass: let’s see if you have to manually assign yourself a license. BOOM!

FINALLY! I had Excel ProPlus and Power View!

Next Problem: No one whom I work with has Excel ProPlus so, how do I share these cool data visualizations that I’m about to make?
Solution: SharePoint
Question: Which SharePoint? There are at least 4.
Answer: SharePoint Online Package 2 (maybe)

Expansion into SharePoint, completely alien territory. A new language. A new people. A new learning curve.

The table below shows the different Microsoft Products and the number of variations. It’s a mess when you go on the Microsoft website looking for a particular feature and weeding through what has what features and is compatible with what. Look at the variations of the same few products in this table:

Microsoft Product # of Variations
Office 365 Mid-size Business 3
Office 365 ProPlus 2
Office 365 Education 3
Office 365 Small Business 4
SharePoint Online 2
Office 365 Home
SharePoint Server
Office 365 Enterprise 

Question: Are we building BI solutions or Rube Goldberg machines?


I have no idea!

Since the day I started writing this blogpost, I noticed that Microsoft has changed the names of some of its newest features. GeoFlow is now Power Map and Data Explorer is now Power Inquiry. Oy vey!

Ultimately, I agree with Rob Collie when he says that Excel has won the BI battle. As much as hardcore developers insist that Excel is passé and suggest learning PHP, C#, C++, Ruby on Rails, R, etc, Excel remains an everyman’s tool for everything from shopping lists to automating enterprise level reporting. And the Excel community is going to hang together in spite of Microsoft’s wacky business and marketing maneuvers.

Microsoft is making great effort to respond to its users’ needs, and most of us are excited about the direction things are going. Thus, I disagree with my friend who suggests that Excel shouldn’t overlap into non-spreadsheet territory. And I’m going to start incorporating 2013 features into my workshops. But DAMN! Do we really need all of this confusion?

Worth Reading

photo credit: elibrody via photopin cc