Are Excel users dinosaurs?

I totally accept there are plenty of valid uses so I’m not making any blanket statements here.


Are big Excel users out of date dinosaurs?
Of course there are a few people doing genuinely novel analysis, for whom something as flexible as a spreadsheet makes the most sense.

Lots of people though create reports/analysis once and just update the data and publish (probably by printing on dead tress and binding in a comb binder right?)

Are these folks just out of date with the last 20 years worth of software development progress?

Shouldn’t they be consuming data from some web service and publishing their analysis via some OLAP silverlight tomfoolery? All by dragging some nice shapes around on a screen?(or 3D Minority Report UI)  And of course consuming all that data on a myriad of devices, including handhelds – and perhaps that new watch mobile I read about recently.

If a new company started up and banned spreadsheets would it fail for not being agile enough ?

What if the data part could not be saved, just the logic? Thats like many of the enterprise reporting apps.

And are spreadsheets holding back the adoption of other richer technologies?

Now, I think spreadsheets are stunning at all sort of things, but the most common use I see is probably data holding and transmission, both of which could be better done by other tech.

When you look around your company or other companies or on-line or whatever are you struck by how many people are really leveraging the benefits of spreadsheets whilst managing their weaknesses? Or like me, do you see lots of examples of people painting themsleves into a corner by the way they use spreadsheets?

(I am not pretending I am purely a spectator in this – I just delivered a spreadsheet horror to a client, supa-mega-urgent-massive-late-changes meant the Access based system that I had designed and started building had to be paused whilst I threw together a (hopefully) temporary crisis avoidance tool.)



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17 Responses to “Are Excel users dinosaurs?”

  1. Timon Says:

    Not sure if this is quite what you are looking for but it reminds me of a short story by Augusto Monterroso that reads in its entirety: “Y cuando desperto, el dinosaurio todavia estaba ahi.” (“When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.”)

  2. Glenn Says:

    “…data holding and transmission, both of which could be better done by other tech.”

    pretty big claim. Care to suggest an example of a semi-structured data format that is better at either holding or transmission?

  3. Harlan Grove Says:

    IMO, where spreadsheets in general and Excel especially are notably deficient is in database connectivity for use in worksheet formulas. Yes, Excel provides lots of support for manual or scripted queries against external data sources, but they have to be returned to worksheet ranges to be used in formulas.

    Contrast with Lotus 1-2-3, which provides named queries. These can be defined as SQL queries against ODBC data sources. The named queries may be treated like worksheet ranges, but they don’t have to be stored in worksheet ranges to be used in formulas. Immediate benefit: one version of the truth at the cost of being unable to use the workbook when disconnected from the data source.

    I asked a leading question in the Excel Team blog a few years ago about whether MSFT would add a new sheet type that was nothing but a new table object, and whether they could be defined by external data queries. Unfortunately, the response was no.

    I use spreadsheets as calculators. I also use R, Mathematica and Octave (the GNU wannabe MatLab) as more sophisticated calculators when Excel becomes inefficient. Some people who use Excel need sophisticated calculators. When I start using the same calculator repeatedly, I either reorganize the spreadsheet or rewrite it as an EXE. But until I reach that point, I want maximum flexibility.

  4. Ross Says:

    Yeah it’s a good question…

    my 2 cents…

    I think it might actually be the other way around Simon. That is that there are, in reality, only very few people who have genuine limited needs that a single bespoke application can deliver, reporting wise and so on.
    I used to see all the time in BI/MIS where some system would build a reporting/analysis system (good systems too), but then people always want a bit more. So that reports or data just get put in a SS.

    It’s not then a massive step to just put the data in a spread sheet to start with.

    So this leads to the question why cant you just write an app that is more flexible right? Well I think people have tried to do that with all the reporting/analysis systems* (you know the ones!). Sometimes there maybe a good fit, but generally maybe not, because there not everywhere, are they.

    So you end up actually writing something that is not unlike a, well a spread sheet program I guess! And we all know the best SS don’t we :)
    That the good thing with spread sheets, they the second best thing for any problem**, and in business you need to do thing quickly and under your control when ever possible.

    *anyone remember the MS attempt at this Analyser or something! lol, what where they thinking!

    **Original artist unknown.

  5. Gordon Says:

    Ross: “[spreadsheets are] the second best thing for any problem”

    Wonderful, and very accurate, way of looking at it. Does anyone know who came up with this maxim?

    Excel is such a blank canvas with a very low entry barrier in terms of required skill, yet the power to do almost any task for those that know how, that it is almost the defacto choice for *any* document in many workplaces.*

    As with many (most?) workplaces, Excel is used here for everything from unsuited tasks like distributing phone/address lists and shared “let’s start recording everytime x happens” workbooks, to things more suited such as developed solutions for client billing & staff productivty measurement.

    Within this gamut there might be 15 different applications that *could* do a better job for each specific task, but none of these applications are pre-installed on every desktop and all will cost £££. Excel wins here without even trying, second best or not.

    * The exception being the use of Powerpoint for posters advertising nights out or cars for sale!

  6. Harald Staff Says:

    I can’t think of any reply shorter than a novel, this is a “what are computers for” topic.
    But a surviving well-fed dinosaur must have done a quite few things right ?

  7. Bob Phillips Says:

    I have been reading this thread for a while and wondering how to contribute. I can’t easily enacpsulate my full views on such a big subject, but I have to make this main point.

    I think that suggesting that Excel is stopping the adoption of rficher technologies is missing the point … by the proverbial.

    One technology does not stop another, not matter how good or bad either may be. Excel has been successful, but if there had not been the PC in the mid 80s, there would have been no Excel. Do you honestly believe if this had happened that the (so-called) rich technologies would rule! If you do, get real.

    I remember when the IBM PC came in, it was crap compared to what Apple had at the time. A PC was never the best technology, but it is not a technology issue, it is a social and business issue.

    The PC, with the might of (even the declining) IBM behind it and the business nous of Gates and Ballmer driving it, sold a dream, and people bought it.

    In the 80s, when you told people that you were in IT, they treated you as if you were from another planet. Today, everyone thinks they understand computers and technology. They don’t of course (look at the balls-up our government have made it, pretending they that understand), they know how to push the buttons but most have no deeper understanding, but, crucially, they think they do. Everyone nowadays thinks that they can do my job, think they can develop code (and spreadsheets). This applies to management as well as the shop-floor, and so centralised IT has got a real job on trfying to sell their architectural strategy, and they are spectacularly bad at it, hence the mess that we see so much of.

  8. Harlan Grove Says:

    I’ve made this point in newsgroups, and I must have made it here before, but I like repeating myself. Aside from writing batchfiles and VBScript, the standard business PC users’ only other application capable of some degree of automation is their spreadsheet program. I overstate somewhat. If they have Office Standard, they have VBA for Word, PowerPoint and maybe Outlook (if their companies use Outlook), but aside from a handful of recorded macros, I have to doubt standard business PC users ever write any VBA themselves.

    If the only tool the IT department gives you is a hammer, they’re still going to blame YOU if you treat all tasks like nails.

  9. Simon Says:

    Bob are you saying you don’t think the fact that people have skill and experience and prebuilt components in Excel discourages them from trying other technologies?

    I do think that is the case, I see it regularly.

    Glenn txt or csv are much less likely to corrupt, have less security issues, are read by a wider range of tools and applications, and can be reliably manipulated on a server.

    Harlan – thats a good point. Few business users get Visual studio style tools. Most places seem to resent giving (business) people Access and not just because they have to pay for it

  10. Harlan Grove Says:

    I can’t figure out where to put this, so I’ll just put it here.

    The most reasonable and damning criticism of spreadsheets is multiple versions of the truth. What spreadsheets really need are more robust (and syntactically simpler) means of accessing centralized data.

    Where I work we don’t have SharePoint. OTOH, I’ve used the Lotus Notes SQL ODBC driver and Lotus 1-2-3 query tables defined as SQL queries against Notes databases in 1-2-3 workbooks, so I understand and have applied the concept. How simple is it to define, say, an Excel data validation list in terms of a list stored on SharePoint? Does doing so require making a copy of the SharePoint list in an Excel worksheet range?

  11. Glenn Says:

    csv files may well be easier to manipulate on a server than xls files, but how often does this occur compared to sending a file to a person via email for them to manipulate?
    Would you honestly send a csv file to someone and expect them to fill in data in anything other than Excel (or some other spreadsheet such as openoffice which will reliably manipulate xls files)?

    Also csv files have no standard that I am aware of. How do you validate that a csv file is correct and hasn’t been corrupted? I would rather have a known corrupt file in my business process than one which has an error which no-one knows about.

    Sure, the xls file format sucks, but so do the alternatives.

  12. Harlan Grove Says:

    How do you validate that an XLS file is correct? As for corruption, non-ASCII characters would be the only form for CSV files. CSV files could also be unintentionally modified, but so could Excel files.

    As for validating correctness, you could send MD5SUMs along with files, either CSV or XLS.

  13. Al Gill Says:

    Harlan – Re multiple versions of the truth – I am currently feeling your pain.

    Not sure how relevant it is to your situation but re data validation lists, one thing I am trying to persuade a client to adopt is:-
    * All their data lives in a database on a server somewhere.
    * They can access this through some sort of form-driven app on their desk-top.
    * VALIDATION is done against lists of valid entries which are held in the same database. This should work particularly well here as there is a range of about 2,000 different potentially valid entries (company names) in one field which need to get mapped down to about 500 different ID codes. Historically, there was no validation so their legacy data (back to 2002) is really flaky.
    * There is an Excel reporting tool that pulls data out of the dB and produces about a couple of dozen standard graphs / tables.

    From toy / mock-ups in-house this seems as though it should work well but I’d be very interested in any other solutions people have tried. Re people sending files by e-mail I am worried about how we persuade the client to stop sending stuff round by e-mail and use the system. Naturally when they make changes outside the system and they don’t see them reflected in the reports it’s all our fault.

    I’m also curious as to how well the Lotes solution worked (although I haven’t personally used Notes since the late ’90s.

    Al G.

  14. jonpeltier Says:

    Glenn – In addition to Harlan’s points, the csv/txt files could be read using VBA techniques or dumped into tables using Get External Data. If you do’t mind a little SQL, using CSVs is way quicker than accessing data from an open worksheet using worksheet functions or VBA.

  15. Bob Phillips Says:

    Simon, No I am not saying that at all. I am saying that it is nothing to do with Excel or the other technologies, the strengths and weaknesses of same, but sociological factors. IBM had to react to the Apple, so came up with an already redundant hardware platform, the PC. They got MS to build the OS, and MS had big ambitions, so they needed applications to run on it. The word processor and the spreadsheet was seen as primary candidates, nd so we got Word and Excel and the might of MS behind them. They were bot h crap poducts in their early days (I would argue that Word still is, Excel is a lost opportunity).

    But, it is not Excel that the is the cause of anything. If you want a culprit it is the PC, it was/is rubbish technology. Did you ever experience the Jobs’ Next platform, it was great, but of course it was crushed.

  16. Harlan Grove Says:

    PC as rubbish technology – do you mean the hardware or the OS? I have to disagree on hardware. PC have always been far more modular than Macs. Less so now with the abundance of USB devices, but still easier to replace failed subsystems on PCs than Macs. That should count for something. Also, bleeding edge graphics processors are more often available for PCs than Macs (2nd hand expert info from my gamer son).

    If you mean the OS, then maybe. Certainly Mac OS X benefits from a much more focused and well executed design philosophy than Windows. And being Unix-based certainly doesn’t hurt vis-a-vis security.

  17. TheDataSpecialist Says:

    “… via some OLAP silverlight tomfoolery? All by dragging some nice shapes around on a screen?”

    Well, Simon, from these two sentences, I guess you had not done much with Silverlight development by the time you wrote this post. Dragging some nice shapes around the screen is something you can do in Excel, not Silverlight. Do not get me wrong, Silverlight and WPF offer lots of flexibility. However, they do not offer as many application-ready controls as would find in Excel. Furthermore they do not natively offer the declarative / reactive kind of programming spreadsheet users are used to, which makes spreadsheet applications so intuitive and fun to use.

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