Spreadsheets Get Smarter About Structured Data, At A Steep Price

I find it interesting that Microsoft and Google have chosen to gate their latest data-driven improvements to their spreadsheets behind their most expensive enterprise licenses. These new features are great, but let’s be honest, by “interesting” I really mean something else!

On the Microsoft side, they’re adding the ability to access Power BI featured tables from Excel’s data types. I’m a big fan of Excel tables, which got elevated to a Genuine Microsoft Product™ after they were renamed from “lists.” I implement hybrid Excel/Power BI solutions for many of my clients so I welcome the ease of use this integration will provide versus the convoluted Analyze in Excel functionality which relies on the antiquated office data connection (odc).

However I find the restriction to Excel E5 and G5 customers pretty infuriating. For the better part of a decade Microsoft buried Power Query and PowerPivot as separate plugins that required more expensive licenses, thus vastly limiting their market adoption. They finally saw the light in 2019, but now they’re again going with these shenanigans?

Look Microsoft, do you really think that small and medium businesses, and many enterprise accounts for that matter, are going to move from their current O365 + Power BI Pro licenses to E5 to make data use a bit more immediate? We’re talking about “the Excel Advanced Analytics service plan included in Office 365 E5, Microsoft 365 E5, Office 365 A5, and Microsoft 365 A5″ [emphasis mine] to be precise, as if anyone knew what that even is. This looks like a blatant attempt to double with customers who are already paying for both Excel and Power BI.

August 27, 2020 update: th restriction to O365 E5 is gone, you only need an O365 license that includes Office + Power BI Pro, which makes sense. I credit my rant for the change!

Here’s what the functionality looks like in practice:

Meanwhile Google added the ability to create “connected sheets” based on BigQuery sources directly from Google Sheets without having to write any code. Sadly this is limited to “G Suite Enterprise, G Suite Enterprise for Education, or G Suite Enterprise Essentials” accounts. So on one end you’re lured into using BigQuery with a generous free tier, but to make practical use of it in a spreadsheet, you have to spend $25/user/month instead of $12. I guess there’s nothing such as a free lunch, huh?

With my G Suite Business subscription I’ve only been able to write a custom query that returns just the first 10K rows, as pictured below, which is just a shadow of the real deal shown in the video above:

Querying BigQuery from Google Sheets, Plebeian Edition

Microsoft may say that Excel users have been able to do this for years in Power Query, from many more data sources, and that the 1-million-row limitation is shattered by PowerPivot. True, and true… but only in the desktop app. Power Query Online is part of Power BI’s dataflows, PowerPivot, and even Azure Data Factory’s wrangling dataflows, but inexplicably there’s still no Get Data experience native to Excel Online. So with their latest announcement Google does have an edge in terms of keeping it all online in a nicely-integrated user experience. I can see a bunch of digital marketing agencies deciding that the price bump is well worth it.

Data in Excel Online: disappointing weaksauce

Here’s a series of video tutorials about Google’s Connect Sheets. This is good stuff that I hope will push Microsoft to get their act together. Online built-in data types such as stock quotes may look good in Excel demos but they’re frankly not going to cut it for real business use.

For historical context, see my entry from 15 years ago, which was visionary if I may say so myself: The Microsoft Office I Really Want. Come on Microsoft, you’ve done most of the hard transformation work that I and many other people thought would never happen. Some people in the Excel team just need to be gently pushed in the right direction!

I’ll conclude by acknowledging that I get amazing value for the $12 or so a month I spend on O365 and Gsuite (each). These suites have such huge scale that they’re admittedly dirt cheap compared to most SaaS offerings out there that are much narrower to boot. However, I also pay for cloud services in Azure and Google Cloud. What I don’t like is the idea that we’d have to suddenly pay two or three times as much per user on the office frontend side to unlock integrations with cloud backends that we also have to pay for.

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