Microsoft Excel has that rare distinction of being an app many of us use by default, yet we never talk about it. We're power users, pivoting our tables and typing complex calculations into cells. (Yesterday, I typed a simple one into a cell with someone looking over my shoulder and he wondered if I was doing some programming.) Anyone serious about business likely uses a spreadsheet to track expenses, at least initially or in a pinch. When you need to visualize some data, create a slide with a chart, or track finances without the extra fluff, many of us use Excel.

Yesterday, Microsoft showed me a new feature, called Maps, that's one of the most impressive additions the company has made in years. It made me wonder where this is all going, now that Microsoft Office runs on the Web, on our phones and tablets, and on the desktop (including Mac and Windows). The latest features in these apps can cull data from the cloud, and the entire app can update in the background. It's much more of a "living and breathing" suite than the stale desktop versions from years ago, and it's making me wonder all over again about using Google Docs.

Maps is a bit like hiring a temporary data scientist or maybe the political analyst Karl Rove. In my demo, the rep showed how, in a few clicks, you can create a detailed map using your own data set. The Maps feature uses Bing Maps and works right within the spreadsheet. Like most of the features in Office 365 and the desktop version, you can typically create these charts in the spreadsheet then copy and paste them into other apps like Microsoft Word or PowerPoint (and then still edit them).

What's most impressive is that, unlike other data scientist tools for mapping, Maps in Excel works with data right down to the county or ZIP code level. Let's say you want to visualize how many people use Sprint, Verizon, or AT&T in your state (and you have access to that data). With Maps, you can color code everything so that every county shows one color for each provider. The immediate use case is to understand geographic trends, but I could see this expanding even further. Data visualization is extremely helpful in a chaotic world of data overload. We have access to massive treasure troves of data about buying habits, generational differences, crime stats, and everything in between. Yet I've rarely seen a way to quickly see this geographic data and reformat it so quickly, using a tool we already know and understand.

It's also impressive how quickly this works--usually with a few clicks. You can watch the demo in the video below. Note how you can select a row of cells and, in a second, see the visualization. Few of us have time to learn a complex visualization tool, let alone reformat text we already have in Excel.

Microsoft is adding many new A.I. driven features to Office and Sway (and to a personal productivity tool I'll cover another time), including one addition to PowerPoint that lets you create a presentation using a few keywords. For example, if you want to do a talk about electric cars, you can type that phrase and the presentation will add images and format everything for you in seconds.

For me, there's a question about workflow, however. I love all of these new powerful features in Office, especially the Maps feature in Excel, but I tend to use Google Docs and Google Sheets because of how quickly I can access them in my Chrome browser (and since I'm a Gmail user). I plan to switch over to Office 365 for a while and report on how it all works in comparison to my normal workflow.

Maps is not quite available yet--it will come out later this year for the desktop version of Office, the Office 365 cloud suite, and the mobile versions on phones and tablets.

Published on: Sep 30, 2016