Python in Excel Comes with a Twist

Python works perfectly well locally, but Microsoft wants it to run only on its cloud

Excel spreadsheets just got a major overhaul. Microsoft has announced a public preview of Python in Excel. Developers or data analysts now would not have to install any extra software to access the functionality, as Excel’s built-in connectors and Power Query will come bundled with Python integration. Microsoft has also added a PY function for Python data to be available within the grid on the spreadsheets. 

In the blog, Stefan Kinnestrand from Microsoft explains that now users will be able to do advanced data analysis within the familiar Excel interface leveraging Python, which would be available on the Excel ribbon. “You can manipulate and explore data in Excel using Python plots and libraries, and then use Excel’s formulas, charts and PivotTables to further refine your insights,” he added.

This announcement comes in a partnership with Anaconda, a leading Python repository for enterprises which will include libraries such as pandas, statsmodels, seaborn, and Matplotlib. Microsoft went the cloud way here by using Anaconda Python distribution on Azure. 

The features are rolling out in the Windows beta channel on Microsoft 365 Insiders and will only be available on the desktop version of Excel, and run on Microsoft Cloud. 

Why the cloud way?

It is worth noting that developers and data analysts have mixed feelings about this release. 

Integrating Python in Excel is something that developers have been trying to do for a long time by utilising Pandas read excel, OpenPyXL, PyXLL. But with this native integration by Microsoft, advanced spreadsheet users can integrate scripts in Python language and their Excel formulas in a single workbook without any additional software. This would also allow shareable experiences of a single notebook over the cloud.

The only downside that people have been concerned about is why it is wholly running on the cloud and not locally. Python can run perfectly well locally now and does not require a Microsoft Cloud connection to perform tasks. Though there are essential libraries being offered through Azure Cloud, since there is no option of running it locally, people are opting out of this change.

In a Reddit discussion, a user said, “Python is such a lightweight runtime anyway, why not just include it inside the software instead of requiring internet which is probably slower than running the code natively even on a low-end laptop.” Moreover, some users argue that running on the internet has possibly made scripting on Google Docs a nightmare. 

On the other hand, people say that though Python is lightweight, running libraries like Scipy and Matplotlib requires heavy computation. To make up for this, Microsoft has integrated it within its cloud services, making it widely available. Or as someone pointed out, it is merely to earn some bucks on the cloud for Microsoft by getting more people to subscribe to their cloud services. 

Well, whatever works for now

People have been arguing for a long time that Python has been eating up Excel’s market share for a long time, even calling it as dead. But people still find Excel most comfortable for data analysis. Undoubtedly, integrating Python in Excel marks as a huge step for people trying to leverage Python when working on Excel, and would single handedly modernise data analysis on the software. Looks like people saying Excel is not a programming language are going to return to it soon and people on Excel would start learning Python soon.

Even then, hosting it solely on the cloud brings up the point of security and data privacy, even after partnering with Anaconda for it. To address the privacy issue, Microsoft has said that they are providing “enterprise-level security”, which means that the code would be running on cloud isolated containers and would not have network access, which would arguably still be dicey for a lot of customers. 

“The cloud part is going to be a huge deal breaker in so many industries. This will automatically be blocked by default at my work place for certain,” said a user on HackerNews. Companies that allow the use of Excel and Python locally, and want to integrate both functionalities in one framework, would still not be happy by shipping their data and Python code on a server outside of theirs.

This marks as a significant step for the future where running coding generative AI applications on Excel would be a thing. In January, Microsoft had announced that they would be experimenting with GPT into their office applications. 

Interestingly Microsoft has been following this path all this while – acquiring Github – acquiring OpenAI that helped them make Copilot for writing Python code – Code interpreter on ChatGPT – AI assistance on PowerBI – to now Python in Excel. What’s Next? Will it be AI writing Python on our excel sheets? Exciting times ahead!

No matter how much we dislike Microsoft Excel, we find ourselves reaching for it every day to perform some quick data analysis or put together an ad-hoc report. That’s the power of Excel – it gets the job done efficiently.

Microsoft is giving Excel superpowers with the addition of Python. Data analysts rejoice – you’ll soon be able to unleash the full capability of Python right inside your familiar Excel environment. Say goodbye to tedious data munging. With libraries like Pandas, manipulating large datasets for cleansing, transformation and exploration just got exponentially easier. Need advanced analytics? You’ll be able to build predictive models directly on Excel data using scikit-learn. How about visualizing exploratory insights? Create publication-ready visuals with Matplotlib, no more exporting back and forth. Don’t even get me started on natural language processing or geospatial capabilities.

The possibilities are endless. Of course, concerns around cloud exclusivity and performance are valid. But if Microsoft can address these issues, we may see a new age of Excel where everyday users can perform cutting-edge analyses previously restricted to coders alone. Exciting times ahead as we seamlessly blend the past and future of data work.

Mohit Pandey
Mohit dives deep into the AI world to bring out information in simple, explainable, and sometimes funny words. He also holds a keen interest in photography, filmmaking, and the gaming industry.

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