Microsoft Excel is about to get a lot smarter

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Microsoft Excel users rejoice. Your favorite spreadsheet is about to get a lot smarter, thanks to the help of machine learning and a better connection to the outside world.

As Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s general manager for Office, and Rob Howard, the company’s director of Office 365 ecosystem marketing, showed me during a briefing at the company’s Ignite conference today, Excel will soon be able to understand more about your inputs and then pull additional information from the internet as necessary.

“We’re pleased to introduce new data types,” Spataro explained. “That doesn’t sound all that interesting and we had this interesting discussion about what we’d name these things, but at the end of the day we realized that if you’re really an Excel wonk, the thing that you’re going to get is that there’s new data types.”

This isn’t just a feature for Excel wonks, though. In today’s demo, Spataro showed me how you will soon be able to tag a list of company names as — well — company names, for example. Once you’ve done that, Excel can pull in more information about the company from Microsoft’s Bing API, including stock data and market cap, for example. Excel can even automatically detect that a list of names is indeed a list of company names or a list of cities, for example, which then allows you to pull in population data, among other things.

“Historically, Excel has always been good at numbers and you can enter in text and use conditional formatting and things like that,” Spataro said. “We are adding the idea that Excel can now recognize data types that are richer than those two.”

In addition, the Office team is also launching a new built-in tool for Excel that will automatically try to pull the most interesting data from a spreadsheet and visualize it. “Insights,” as the company is currently calling it, is modeled on a very similar feature in the Power BI data visualization and analysis tool, and it’s worth noting that Google Sheets also offers a comparable tool. “It is meant to take any list of data and then start to generate insights,” Spataro said. “It will look at combinations, charts, pivot tables and it will recognize those that are most interesting by looking at outliers, looking at trends in the data, looking at things that represent changes.” If you like one of the graphs the service generates, you can easily import those into your Excel sheets and manipulate them to your heart’s content.

As Microsoft also announced earlier this week, Excel will soon be able to pull in machine learning models that a company’s data scientists have created to analyze information in Excel, and you can also now use JavaScript to write more complex scripts for manipulating data or pulling in data from virtually any third-party service with an API.

The new data types will launch early next year. Insights will arrive in a spreadsheet near you in early 2018.

As Spataro also noted, these kind of connections to third-party service are what differentiates Office 365 from the perpetual versions of Office. “Services breathe new life into these applications,” he said. “We think these apps still have a lot of life in them for just working on your content, but we do believe that these connections just makes it magical.”

If you do want a perpetual license for Office, though, and not pay a subscription fee, you are in luck, because as the company also announced today, the next perpetual version of Office will launch in the second half of 2018, and, because that’s almost 2019, it will be called Office 2019.

“Cloud-powered innovation is a major theme at Ignite this week. But we recognize that moving to the cloud is a journey with many considerations along the way,” Spataro writes in today’s announcement. “Office 2019 will be a valuable upgrade for customers who feel that they need to keep some or all of their apps and servers on-premises, and we look forward to sharing more details about the release in the coming months.”