Microsoft Brings AI to Power BI, Acquires Startup Bot Developer

New capabilities that add artificial intelligence to Microsoft’s Power BI tool and the acquisition of startup XOXCO aim to make it easier for partners to extend AI and bots in the workplace.

Jeffrey Schwartz

November 15, 2018

4 Min Read
Artificial intelligence

Microsoft seeks to bring artificial intelligence and chatbots as a mainstream part of the workplace and it’s taking steps to make it easier for partners to deliver AI capabilities directly into its popular Power BI reporting tool.

At an event in San Francisco Wednesday, company officials revealed new AI capabilities coming to its Power BI self-service analytics tool with its new Azure Cognitive Services containers for partners without deep data-science development skills to deliver intelligent apps.

Also looking to make it easier for partners to develop bots, Microsoft announced it has agreed to acquire XOXCO, a startup with expertise in conversational AI. Founded in 2013, XOXCO created the first commercial chatbot for Slack, a meeting scheduling app called Howdy. XOXCO is also known for its Botkit developer tool for building chatbot apps and providing native integration with messaging platforms.

In addition, looking to make it easier for partners to build virtual assistants for customers with its Azure Bot Service, Microsoft released an update to its Bot Framework SDK and Tools, version 4.1, and issued a preview of a new open-source bot solution accelerator for virtual assistants.

More than 360,000 developers are registered to build and manage bots using the Azure Bot Service, according to Microsoft. The company’s goal is to help partners build solutions that make AI easier for workers to use.

Microsoft released a preview of the new AI features coming to Power BI, which will bring image recognition, text analytics and automated machine learning to the tool. Integrated with Azure Machine Learning, Power BI will let users create machine-learning models directly within the tool.

Coupled with the new Azure Cognitive Services, partners with limited AI skills can use these pre-trained machine-learning models to extract information from various sources including files, images and feeds from social media networks with Power BI.

Power BI’s latest features come just a week after Microsoft released the preview of the tool with SQL Server Reporting Services built-in. It allows those who have used SSRS to run it directly in Power BI without connecting to the database server.

Microsoft demonstrated the SSRS support in Power BI in September at its Ignite conference in Orlando.

“SQL Server Reporting Services has been around for a long time and it creates these beautiful, pixel-perfect, multi-page paginated reports,” said Arun Ulagaratchagan, Microsoft’s general manager of Power BI engineering. “By bringing those reporting services capabilities into Power BI, now in the same place, you get not only your self-service BI reports, but you also get your paginated reports.”


Arun Ulagaratchagan

Arun Ulagaratchagan

Since its release three years ago, customers have created 20 million data models hosted in the Power BI service in Office 365, Ulagaratchagan said during an interview at Ignite.

“Every day, 30,000 new reports are added,” he said. “That’s stunning growth.”

Ulagaratchagan said there are thousands of partners that offer Power BI-based services, and the company spotlights about 800 in a directory of those who have shared reference implementations. Services-partner offers range from creating implementations and integrations with legacy systems to employee training.

Some partners have offered Microsoft’s Dashboard in a Day workshops, done at a Microsoft training facility, delivered by the partner for invited customers.

“It’s a great lead-generation opportunity for them,” he said. “And that drives more and more Azure enablement and consumption.”

Orion Systems Integrators, a global Microsoft partner that specializes in data-driven business processes and analytics, is among those that have offered Dashboard in a Day, along with a wide variety of advisory, consulting and managed services centered around Power BI. Orion has offered services around Power BI since its release.

Nagaraj Shanmugam, Orion’s VP of business development and alliances, said many projects have started small and mushroomed into larger engagements.

“When we enter as a small pilot, it starts out as a single use case with a five-day session, and it snowballs into the next larger problem that they discover during that session,” he said.

Shanmugam said he sees many use cases down the road that will benefit from the AI capabilities coming to Power BI.

Microsoft has made no secret of its focus on bringing AI and machine learning to the masses. “Our goal is to make AI accessible and valuable to every individual and organization, amplifying human ingenuity with intelligent technology,” said Lili Cheng, Microsoft’s Corporate VP for conversational AI, in a blog post announcing the XOXCO deal.  “We envision a world where natural language becomes the new user interface.”

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About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Schwartz

Jeffrey Schwartz has covered the IT industry for nearly three decades, most recently as editor-in-chief of Redmond magazine and executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner. Prior to that, he held various editing and writing roles at CommunicationsWeek, InternetWeek and VARBusiness (now CRN) magazines, among other publications.

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