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Where are Excel & Google Spreadsheet Headed? Part 3 of 6 - Oz du Soleil

Continuing the conversation

Here we go yawl! Today and tomorrow present more questions than answers but it’s worth reading for the insights into the interplay of IT, Microsoft, Google, our clients, and the spectrum of spreadsheet users–from the casual to the power users. So, turn off your cell phone and put your glasses on. We’re about to get on  with the get-on.

CRAIG HATMAKER, IT Director

Craig Hatmaker

Let’s have some fun with this.

We’ve seen this play before.

  • Enter stage left “David” with nifty idea – create cloud applications to enable collaboration and device portability.
  • Sleeping “Goliath” is awakened to the threat and quickly replicates same features in its products.
  • Public sees David’s nifty idea in Goliath’s products, resists change to completely new platform.
  • David hopes “Free” can overcome market resistance and weaker offering. David continues enhancing product.
  • Anything David adds to improve product, Goliath replicates.
  • David realizes it’s trapped with a product that can’t be monetized through sales so decides to recoup R&D by suing Goliath for copyright infringement.
  • David wins court battle but loses product war.
  • Exit David’s apps stage right along with Netscape. OS2, Word Perfect and Lotus help console David.

Epilogue

With monopoly intact, Goliath recoups court losses by increasing prices. Goliath’s products are now bloated, buggy, and directionally fractured. Public is left confused and angry – hoping another David can confront this Goliath.

So where are they going?  Microsoft is following Google’s lead.  Microsoft has NEVER shown any real imagination; but, it has always recognized a good idea when one comes along and ruthlessly responded to competitive threats.   So watch Google to see where Microsoft will go. Technically, Microsoft responded by web enabling Office and is expanding Java’s role.  Prior functionality remains but won’t be enhanced because the public resists wholesale changes and no one is challenging Microsoft there. Monetarily, Microsoft is attempting to force us into a “rent” model.  This is probably inspired by WOW’s hugely successful model and validated by Adobe’s Creative Cloud.

The Sequel Curtain opens with Microsoft attempting to force us to rent Office by making standalone versions incompatible with its operating system

Enter stage left China with pirated and re-engineered Microsoft’s code packaged as 辦2020

ROB COLLIE, POWERPIVOT PRO

Rob Collie

As a former minion of Mount Doom out in Redmond, I can say that Craig [Hatmaker] is remarkably accurate, and overall I agree. I’d like to add and modify a few points that may amount to hairsplitting, but do add some color that is otherwise missing.

1. It’s shockingly difficult to have an idea that is both useful AND 100% original.
a. Almost everything ends up being derivative and/or editorial with respect to something else.
b. Steve Jobs didn’t innovate so much as he took existing categories and ruthlessly made them not suck. That makes him no less important in my eyes. We need many more people like him, because by default, engineers build great machines… and terrible experiences.
c. The only reason Google Docs itself got off the ground is because Google wants to index everything for advertising purposes. Every time they can learn more about you by peering into your behavior and content, they will. Even Gmail is just a way for Google to scan your email, develop better algorithms, and serve you more accurate ads.
d. In Google, I see all the signs of Microsoft v2. Same ruthless biz strategies, same focus on developers, and then the cool ideas for their own sake – that flop in the market. Will we remember Google Glass as revolutionary or another punchline? Unclear, but the odds favor the latter.
e. So I don’t see anything terribly innovative about Google Docs, but MS is definitely in response mode anyway, 100% certain there. It’s Goliath and Goliath, there is no David here.
f. MS has plenty of original ideas it’s just that most of them turn out to be useless 🙂 There were many years of “no good new features in Excel” for instance because we kept cramming REALLY COOL NEW IDEAS in there – that were cool to, um, just us. Listening to customers turns out to be much more effective. Boring, but makes for better products.
g. For a few semi-original ideas that WERE successful, how about OneNote and LiveWriter? I can’t live without either of them. EverNote turned the tables on MS there. Heck, I’d argue that Outlook was a pretty innovative concept back in the day. How about Power Pivot? I think that’s the single most game changing development, data tools wise, of the past 15 years. We’re still early in the market awareness curve there though, partly because MS doesn’t know how to market it. Yet.

2. This whole “web Excel” thing is complicated by the difference between Authors/Power Users on one hand vs. Consumers/Casual Users on the other.
a. Bill [Jelen] argues, quite convincingly, that there is only one spreadsheet product that matters, and that’s the desktop “fat client” Excel.
b. But I’d like to add the clause “for Authors/Power Users” to that argument. Casual Users actually are probably better off with the web versions. And Consumers of finished spreadsheets are DEFINITELY better off with the web version.
c. Bill’s audience (and mine) is very much the Author/Power User crowd. But for every Author, there are 15 Consumers. MS looks at those numbers and ends up optimizing for the 15, who are the most “vulnerable” to Google.
d. But I think both Bill and MS overlook (at least partially) the fact that the 1 Author’s work is made 15x as important because of the Consumers. Both Bill and MS should, in my opinion, be focusing more energy on “hey Authors, here’s how you build killer spreadsheets, in desktop Excel, with an eye toward web delivery to your Consumers.” That’s a growth and entrenchment strategy for all of us.
e. Think of the web as the “runtime” and the desktop as the “design time.” No one is arguing that Visual Studio should be put on the web, even though most development in Visual Studio is for the web. I wish MS started thinking that way with Excel rather than trying to port every single power “design time” feature to the web, which is just plain silly.

3. Recurring revenue model envy at MS predates WOW by many years.
a. I probably first heard about subscription software, and our desire to switch to it, around 2000.
b. Light bulb and razor manufacturers deliberately build “perishable” products that last a fraction of the time that an engineer COULD build, for instance. Just Big Business doing what it always does. Which doesn’t make it good. Just something that we accept (I wish we didn’t).
c. Every big and monied interest wants their customers to rent rather than buy. Even home ownership in the US is really renting, it’s just that you are renting the money, and your landlord is the bank.
d. Hey, how’d I end up in the SocioPolitical Zone? Sorry, back to the topic.

SUMMARY & COMMENTS

WOAH! This has gotten complicated fast. One message that comes through is: wherever all of this is going for Google and Microsoft, the users may not want to go. Craig warns that we could end up with something bloated and buggy. Rob speaks as an eye-witness to an Excel history where the engineers pimped out Excel with features that were cool for the engineers but not for users.

Which users, though? I like how Rob distinguishes between spreadsheet authors, spreadsheet consumers, and casual users. Also, it’s interesting to know that 1 spreadsheet author impacts an average of 15 consumers of their work. He brings the complicated reality into the mix, but I don’t quite follow the disagreement with “Web Excel.”

Sharing of information has taken on so many forms. Before ExcelWebApp I was irritated with both Google and Microsoft. Google’s spreadsheet lacked the validation features, and Excel had no online presence whatsoever. I remember a friend asking me to create a spreadsheet for 15 people to manage their weekly goals. One critical aspect was that a person can’t complete more goals on Friday than they’d promised on Monday.

With Excel such restrictions are easy. At the time, Google spreadsheet could be shared among the 15 people, and it could calculate the success percentages, but a person could promise 5 goals on Monday and say they completed 7 goals on Friday. I mentioned this to a Google fanboi who said, “ahhh, you can program that easy.”

Program? Basic input controls? Aw hell naw!

In the end, the group opted for the co-authoring of an online flimsy Google document over the robust Excel that they’d have to share in DropBox. Today, we could put that online in Excel and it’d be tight!

That’s not an example of Big Data but it’s an example of a common use of Excel that I’ve dealt with as an author over the past 5 years: building calculators, dashboards and apps … some of which benefit from “Web Excel.” For me, there’s never been a question of Excel vs. Google spreadsheet. Google has never measured up. My conflict is often between

  1. embedding Excel on the web (like this break-even calculator that I built for a friend),
  2. finding a WordPress plugin, or
  3. committing myself to learning PHP

Of course, there are Tableau and other online tools for dashboards and data visualization but then we get into issues of cost, learning curve, and loading your data into something that  may not be so easy to get your data back out of. My clients tend to be 1 to 15-person operations. Tableau’s $999 pricetag in addition to my rate isn’t a conversation worth starting.

This leads to several points:

  • Spreadsheet users are all over the map: authors, consumers, app developers, screen-scrapers, financial modelers, database architects. 3D illustrators … So, this question about where Google and Microsoft are going with their spreadsheets is insanely tough to answer given the infinite ways spreadsheets are used.
  • I agree with Rob that there needs to be more focus on developing kick-ass spreadsheets for the people on the consumption side of the equation. So many spreadsheets require very simple math, but the layouts are terrible, there’s no protection and the interfaces aren’t intuitive. And how can we get bulletproof, polished products onto the internet?
  • Taking Rob’s point that 1 spreadsheet author has an average of 15 consumers, we have to choose our tools very carefully or risk ending up on an island. Someone asked me about converting their business’ VBA spreadsheets over to Open Office. Oh lord! That sounded like a potential episode of Discovery Channel’s survival show “Naked and Afraid.” Something bad happens, there’s no help, and the only protection is some handmade bamboo-leaf underwear. (Users of Excel 2003 need to watch out. You’re going to be Naked and Afraid in April when Microsoft stops supporting Office 2003).

TOMORROW

Craig replies to Rob and gives us an enlightening view inside the relationship between IT and spreadsheets.

IT’s traditional tactic for solving capacity problems is outsourcing to cheap technical talent who we teach our business to.  Instead, IT should leverage existing business talent we can teach technology to.

Rob replies to Craig

I am happy to say there’s a slight uptick in IT people thinking like you rather than the old way.