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pot brain simmerA Long-Simmering Observation

Today I’d like to take a break from Power Pivot magic tricks and share some thoughts about “the state of data.” 

The particular observation I’d like to share is far from complex, but I think it’s being “missed” by many of the “players” of our game, so even though it’s simple, it’s worth talking about.

Let’s start with an old prediction about Tablets.  I think Tablets quite literally provide a window into the heart of the matter.


The Rumors of the Tablet’s Death Were Greatly Exaggerated

tombstone 2A couple years ago, a colleague of mine assured me that the world’s fascination with tablets (iPad, Surface, etc.) would be over shortly.  We’d all be back to using laptops in a few years and the whole tablet form factor would be a memory.  I didn’t give it much thought at the time one way or another – it struck me as bold, but there were other things to discuss so I moved on.

At this point I think we can say the Market has spoken, the verdict is in, and his prediction proven profoundly wrong.

With the recent announcement of Office for iPad, in fact, we’re seeing the world turned SO upside down that MS actually invested tremendous effort in re-tooling their flagship desktop suite to run on their arch-enemy’s tablet.  Again, I’d like to stress, it was Microsoft – of Redmond, Washington – who did this.

Oh, what’s that?  Power Pivot doesn’t run on Office for iPad?  Should we be bothered by that?  Heck no.  Let me explain why not…

Tablets Suck for Production!

If you are reading this website, chances are very good that in the Power Pivot world, you are a Producer – someone who creates models and reports.  And Producers need the speed of keyboard and mouse.  So even if Power Pivot worked on Office for iPad, you would find it a miserable experience to use.  Miserable.

Until the next breakthrough in User Experience technology, Tablets will always suck for intensive production purposes.  You’re not going to build Power Pivot models on them.  Or write software.  Or write books for that matter.

So Why Are Tablets so Popular?

imageWell, first of all, Consumers outnumber Producers.  In our world of data for instance, my research indicates about a 15:1 ration of Consumers to Producers. 

And the key “value” of Tablets is that they make passive and lightly interactive Consumption so pleasant.  They are smaller, lighter, slimmer, more portable.  For point and click, touch interface is fantastic – much better than the mouse really, as long as the “click targets” are large.  They are also less obtrusive in social situations, since they don’t put a vertical screen between you and other people, and their “keyboards” don’t make noise.

What’s that, you say?  You are a Power Pivot Producer, but you ALSO own (and love!) a Tablet?  You still Consume a lot of other stuff though don’t you?  You cannot possibly wear the Producer hat in your entire life.  Many of you are reading this website on your tablet, for instance (6.4% of you, according to my web logs).

Because the Data World is so Customized to the particulars of each business, the ratio of Producer to Consumer is actually quite high relative to other industries. One out of sixteen white collar workers is an Excel pro or similar – that’s astonishing when you compare it with other industries.  How many people work to Produce an episode of Mad Men or Game of Thrones compared to the number of people who Consume those shows? 

It’s not even close to 1/16 elsewhere.  We are the exception.  We are legion. Smile

Why is This All Relevant?

There are a number of different takeaways.  Here are a few:

  1. People will want to Consume your Power Pivot work on their tablets.  So if you can, get SharePoint, get Power BI, get something that makes your reports work in the browser.  Or get really good at “Save as PDF.”
  2. Don’t try to turn every Office worker into a Producer of analysis.  The “Self-Service BI” movement is a Good Thing, for sure, but I think 1 out of 16 people is basically the “ceiling” you should expect for sophisticated adoption of any new tool – be it Power Pivot, Tableau, Qlikview, whatever.  The other 15/16 are going to be passive or light-interactive Consumers of the work produced by the “1.”  (Donald Farmer’s old blog post “the End of the End User” nails many of the details of the world, but IMO gives the wrong overall impression.  But even he might want to revise or clarify that stance today.)
  3. Microsoft needs to Wake Up to the value of the Excel Producer.  Everything we’ve seen from Office Proper, lately, has been Consumer-focused. 

With regard to #3, the iPad version is merely the ultimate example.  The Ribbon, the Web Apps, features like Flash Fill and Quick Explore, the list goes on.  They’ve done the math.  They know that most of their audience consists of Casual users rather than Power users.  So they focus investment accordingly.

Back when I worked at MS, I remember how hard it was becoming to advocate a Power User feature, given the rarity of Power Users.  But I now see that Casual/Power distinction carries with it a false assumption – that Power and Casual users exist in non-overlapping silos.  The reality is FAR more intertwined. 

“Power vs. Casual,” most of the time, is merely a shadow cast by the Producer/Consumer dynamic.  Once we stop looking at the shadow and look at the first-order reality, we see that the work of one Producer “captures” 15 Consumers.

Consider this example:


How Many People Have Learned to Write a Mouse-Enabled Application for Windows?
(Hint:  it’s less than “millions,” and definitely does NOT include me.)

And How Many People Have Used a Mouse-Enabled Application for Windows?
(Hint:  it’s Billions.)

If we view Windows with the Power/Casual user lens, we would see a ratio far more dramatic than 1/16.  For every human who has learned to navigate the Byzantine Windows API, and actually write an application, there are tens of thousands (at least) who have not, but have used Windows.

By that rationale, shouldn’t Windows “retire” from caring about Programmers?  And shouldn’t Apple stop caring about the folks who upload apps to their AppStore?

No, because one Windows or iOS Programmer (a Producer) “captures” tens of thousands of Windows or iOS Users (Consumers) – Consumers who are then forced to use the Windows or iOS platform in order to Consume what the Programmer made!

When it comes to Office, I don’t think they understand, yet, that Excel is much more like Windows than it is like Word.  It’s very hard to write a Word doc that won’t render properly on Google Apps.  And it’s very hard to produce a “Casual User” feature for Excel that can’t quickly be copied by Google Apps.  But build a Producer-focused “network effect” into your app…  THAT is damn near impossible to copy.  AND it captures the Consumers by proxy.

If I were Microsoft Emperor, that would be one of the first things I’d do:  for Excel at least, we’d put Producers on even footing with Consumers in terms of product development priorities.  (We’d still build “casual” features, but in equal proportion to Producer features, rather than in overwhelming proportion like today).

Anyway, enough for today Smile

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 17 Comments
  1. Rob – I dont agree with you on the ratio – If we had more Consumers than Producers we would have more VP’s than Analysts in a company – Most companies have a pyramid structure.
    We can safely say that people at the bottom of the ladder are the producers and ask you go up you get the consumers.

    I do agree that from the year 2007 on-wards the focus of the office team at MS has moved away from producers (productivity) to Consumers (Colors, Formatting, Shapes that glow in the dark, badly formatted charts etc etc. etc)

    MS also does not consider Excel as a Productivity tool any more. It does not look at Excel + VBA + PowerPivot + Access as a “serious” Development Platform

    MS looks at Excel as a “final presentation layer” for some data / report sitting in the back-end.

    Their entire focus on in now on the guy paying the money “VP – IT Department” – nobody else

    1. In terms of total numbers, yes, the Producers are located “lower” on the pyramid. But in my experience, every now and then, the VP *is* an Excel Pro. I think the 1/16 fraction is roughly the same at all levels, it’s just that there are FAR fewer people at the top of the pyramid. And there’s therefore a 95% chance that *YOUR* VP, then, is NOT a Producer.

      I stick to my guns – the 1/16 ratio cuts across all demographics, including Executive vs. Worker Bee.

      But no company, MS or otherwise, could ever build a sales strategy, targeted at the VP level, that would only work 5% of the time. So you see a strategy that is built to target the 15/16 VP’s.

      In other words, I think your observations about the world are completely compatible with my observed 1/16 ratio.

  2. I have now become painfully aware that the 1 out of 16 people have the “Gene” is greatly over estimated. At least in my world. Though frustrating at time, guess ensures job security for me. Bright side.

  3. I would disagree to a point about your statement that tablets suck for production. You might not be able to use PowerPivot on a Surface RT, but the Office 2013 RT suite on a Surface RT has allowed me to produce quite a bit (maybe not writing code or using PowerPivot) when used with a keyboard and mouse. If you go with a Surface Pro or even some of the 8″ tablets out there now that are running full Windows 8.1, you can also be extremely productive and even use PowerPivot, when used with a mouse and keyboard and probably an external monitor for those 8″ guys.

    Now, sure, if you are talking about trying to be productive with the tablet alone, no keyboard or mouse, then I would agree that tablets by any manufacturer running any OS, are going to suck for production.

    1. Yeah that was precisely my point. You need a keyboard and mouse for Production. By the time you attach all those peripherals to a tablet, you’ve turned it into a laptop and sacrificed the “tablet-ness.”

      I think your point is that Producers should not shy away from the Surface, and I agree. A single device that can be used both ways is great, particularly given that even the most prolific Producer is still a Consumer most of the time (maybe not in the Data world, but in other domains like books, the web, etc.)

  4. I disagree that we shouldn’t care about PowerPivot not working on Office for iPad. Biggest let down for me in a while. Was so let down I even asked for help/info in the MS Community forum to make sure I wasn’t doing something wrong.

    As a PowerPivot producers I could care less about building, changing, or editing my model on a tablet. That is just silly,a keyboard that clacks loudly, dual monitors, a fresh hot press of Mayorga, and loud tunes. This is what I need for my end of production.

    My consumers however, the users I produce for, are producing a product. They want more than anything to have a tablet with my product on it. They want to load a recently refreshed model onto a tablet and go out, and make some informed decision. They want to see a customers previous 4 years of sales history side by side while walking through a Garden Center reminded said customer of their trend. They want to see what we plan to produce over the next year, where we are to production goals, what percent of what we make is sold, who is taking it, when, where, and why, right in front of the product instead of at a desk. They want the world turned upside down, inside out, and all in 3 seconds once they click a button…

    Our consumer is a hungry beast that, in my world, is becoming a bigger monster every time I feed it. Yesterday I rolled out our production plan converted into total hours to produce based on some time studies we took by propagation type… This is something we have been shooting from the hip at blindfolded while moving at 100 mph as we are changing a tire… something I could have never defined or executed without PowerPivot, something the big guy has been dreaming about for a decade, something that is not changing the game but, creating an entire new game and way to play. Not 4 minutes into the demo the shine and new car smell seemed to vanish from the air as he dreamed up at least 10 offshoots of what the day before would have been called the Grail.

    The Beast wanted food, I went into the kitchen, cooked for a bit, fed The Beast, and like a proper data Amoreican, The Beast said MORE!!

    That’s why MS needs basic PP functionality, load it on, slice it, sort it, view it…not build it, we cooks do that back in the kitchen while rocking out to Mars Hotel, Join the Army, or La Boheme if that’s your style.

    1. Gordon you kick ass 🙂 Just the whole comment, SO awesome. Jam-packed with entertaining Truth.

      This “loophole” in my argument was nibbling at the back of my brain while I wrote the post – those of us who are sharing PowerPivot models via giving the workbook to Consumers on their Power Pivot-enabled computers… well the “not on iPad” thing is a huge disappointment in that world.

      Thing is though, MS only makes money on Power Pivot when you use the server. Realistically we cannot expect them to burn tremendous engineering cycles on something that won’t pay them. I try to keep my gaze focused on those places where “they” and “us” have overlapping interests – and there is plenty of inefficiency even there (ways they could serve themselves AND us better). Power Pivot on iPad would be outright altruism on their part.

      So uh… get a server? Convince the Boss that it’s time for Surface Pro tablets instead?

      1. Rob,

        perhaps there is hope for Apple-consumers.

        Yesterday I have seen the new “Microsoft Power BI” App in Windows-Store. If MS wants to make money with Apple-Consumers they will ship a comparable app for Apple-Devices. And I will bet, that they will do that.They can give the app for free, because they make the money with the SharePoint-Server, where everything is hosted.

  5. The Surface Pro is much like Excel – One of the best pieces of hardware from MS
    And what is MS doing – making sure that It is not as easily available outside the US compared to an ipad or a samsung tab and Instead of trying to sell it as the Excel -Tablet – They go and put Excel on a iPad there by killing their own chances of selling hardware.

  6. After getting an email this morning from a client about the PowerPivot reports in which the client said “it would be imperative that it works well with an IPAD.” I just search on PowerPivot on iPad and found your article. Great article.

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