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Microsoft's Big-Data Angle: Office as a Friendly Front-End

"Think of Office as a canvas or scaffolding from which users can access all their data."


Microsoft has big plans for big data and a new vision for its use that the company hopes will re-establish it as an innovator in a crucial business sector.

At a Tuesday event in San Francisco, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and a handful of other executives gave an overview of the latest refinements to the company’s big-data strategy, ones Nadella says will democratize big-data analytics, allowing even non-data scientists to make sense of the torrent of machine-generated data available to them these days.

“The core evolution of silicon, software and hardware is putting computing everywhere humans are present,” Nadella said. “And it’s generating a massive data exhaust of server logs, sensor data and unstructured social stream information. We can use that exhaust to create ambient intelligence for our users.”

Filter out the big-data buzzwords, and what Nadella is saying is pretty simple. The Internet of Things produces massive quantities of raw information. Microsoft wants to mine that information for actionable business insights. And because the company controls a popular big-data back end in SQL, Azure and Hadoop and an equally popular front end in Office, it’s in prime position to do just that.

“We want our users to be able to reason over all their data, no matter where it lives,” Nadella said. “And one way we’re doing that is with Office. Think of Office as a canvas or scaffolding from which users can access all their data.”

In other words, think of Office as a UI for data, an application through which you can derive big-data insights by simply asking questions — assuming you’re already running Microsoft’s database stuff on the back end. Microsoft, for example, used Excel to manage its own heating costs, crunching facilities’ power consumption data to identify a building on its Redmond campus that was being unnecessarily heated at significant expense. Another scenario: A company tracing a sudden decline in product sales to a negative shift in consumer sentiment, by cross-referencing regional sales with certain Twitter hashtags — again, through a few simple searches in Excel.

Deriving insights from structured data simply by asking a question of a familiar application? That’s a pretty compelling proposition for business users. And it’s a savvy move for Microsoft, which is using its Office suite of apps to expand the audience of who can and will be empowered by the data its SQL Server 2014 and Analytics Platform System are already generating.

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