I was interested to see some examples of Microsoft’s thinking at the recent Ignite conference in Orlando. One example of this that will really democratize the use of machine learning is the integration of Microsoft’s broad machine learning tools deeply into the Excel spreadsheet application. In an analyst session in which we talked about the future of Artificial Intelligence, Julia White, Microsoft’s CVP in charge of Azure, Security and more and Joseph Sirosh, the company’s AI Tsar gave us an idea of the near future.

The idea here is that Excel, a tool that even the most grass-roots technology user interacts with often, can become the gateway to AI – Excel will be able to intuit information from the data users input, and using Microsoft’s backend tools, pull additional information into the spreadsheet from the answer. These features, which are due to launch early next year, will create an inflection point in the use of AI.

An example that has been talked about for some time, but which will see its way into the hands of real users, relates to data about organizations. a user will be able to tag a list of names as companies, and then Excel will pull more information about those organizations, using the API that sits alongside Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Data such as stock price and market capitalization can appear within the spreadsheet. Excel will be smart enough to automatically sense that a text list is company names, cities, or other data types.

Another application of AI into Excel is the Insight Service in which Excel will automatically determine the most “interesting” data from within a spreadsheet and generate an appropriate visualization of that data. The “Insight Service” will sound familiar to anyone who has used Microsoft’s Power BI data visualization service or, for that matter, power users of Google’s competing Sheets product – these all move towards not only visualizing the data itself but using artificial intelligence to intuit what is the right data to visualize.

Helping accelerate the move away from perpetual licensing

Ironically, Microsoft also announced that a new version of the traditionally licensed Office product is due out late next year. As a way of giving comfort to those conservative organizations that don’t want to adopt the subscription-based models of Office, the traditional three-yearly cycle of upgrades will continue, at least for another cycle.

That said, functionality such as the application of AI into Office will drive the move towards Office 365 – connected services are a key differentiator between traditional and cloud-based delivery models and as the level of amazing things that can be driven by the connected solutions increases, so too will the adoption of those services.


The exciting thing in all of this for me are the aspects in which Excel will make AI-based decisions for users. It’s one thing having an application that can quickly give me accurate answers to questions, but a far different thing to be able to have the application actually tell me what information is the most important. It’s exciting to see Microsoft’s thinking around AI, and how it can be applied as a broad fabric across all the different parts of the business, this Excel integration is but one example of that, albeit a powerful one.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

1 Comment
  • Hey Ben. Good article. Would be keen to pick your brain on this some more, when we are both in the country (a rather unlikely event).

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