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Microsoft Excel: Huge update expands data types beyond just text and numbers

Excel customers can now import their own data directly to Excel and use it as a data type.

Businesses can now create data types from their own data in Excel.

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Businesses can now create data types from their own data in Excel.

Image: Microsoft

Excel is receiving what could be its most significant overhaul in years, after Microsoft announced that the program will allow users to create custom data types.

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Historically, Microsoft Excel has only allowed users to work with text and numbers. This changes in an upcoming update will enable customers to import their own data directly to Excel and use it as a data type.

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This means that organisations will be able to work with their own business data as data types, directly within Excel. By way of example, Microsoft said businesses who have a system for tracking customers can bring it into Excel, structured in a way that they define.

Data types can also be connected to live sources, Microsoft said. A single cell value can have a live connected set of information that customers can quickly refer to, without needing to constantly go back to the original source to find more information.

“Up to this point, the Excel grid has been flat: it’s two dimensional. You can lay out numbers, text, and formulas across the flexible grid, and people have built amazing things with those capabilities,” Microsoft said in a blog post.

“Not all data is flat though, and forcing data into that 2D structure has its limits. With Data Types we’ve added a third dimension to what you can build with Excel. Any cell can now contain a rich set of structured data in just a single cell.”

For Microsoft Power BI customers, Excel will automatically connect to Power BI, meaning that any data published to Microsoft’s business intelligence platform will be available in Excel as a custom, structured data type.

At the same time, Excel customers will be able to use the Power Query tool to identify different data sources and transform them into a data type; alternatively, users can create their own data types from scratch using any source of organisational data via Excel’s Get Data menu, including files, databases and online services. Power Query data types will automatically update from the connected data sources.

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“These data types live within the workbook you’re building, allowing you to simplify large volumes of data and make it easier for others in the organization to consume,” Microsoft explained. The company is also in the process of introducing 100 new Wolfram Alpha data types for Microsoft 365 Personal or Family subscribers, allowing customers to do things like track nutritional information and monitor stocks.

Power BI data types are available in Excel for Windows for all Microsoft 365/Office 365 subscribers that have a Power BI Pro service plan.

Power Query data types are currently rolling out and will be available in the coming weeks for all Microsoft 365/Office 365 subscribers, Microsoft said, while Wolfram Alpha data types are available for preview now for Office Insiders.

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