Servers and spreadsheets

Somebody made a comment, I can’t remember who (or where!) about Excel 97 users. Basically saying, for most purposes this group probably do not represent a rich vein of opportunity for either add-on product or service sales. And actually they probably dont make good upgrade prospect either. Having already managed without anything from the last 10 years of spreadsheet development, its hard to imagine what would make them upgrade now.

I did have someone persuade me to release an E97 version of XLAnalyst, but thats a free tool and the work was a freebie as well. So I would have to agree that I do not expect to generate much revenue from E97 users going forward.

Extending that principle I wonder if, regardless of the proportion of users that adopt Excel services type products, might the most attractive opportunities be with this group?

I have worked for clients who had limited infrastructure control and they were all truly in spreadsheet hell. I worked places where the client can and does control servers, with Analysis Services, Oracle, Essbase and SQL Server etc, and I can honestly say these clients were in much better shape and the work was more productive and more enjoyable. And in general they understood the cost/benefits of investing in effective tools and services at all levels.

Maybe its just me but I would much prefer to write tools to connect a clients spreadsheets to their server data than sort through 20 levels of linked tangled spreadsheet mess.

So I’m thinking things like Excel services probably won’t take over the world, and they sure have some drawbacks, but maybe as a developer and as a business person that still might make a more attractive market. I am still not currently planning to invest much time in Office 2007 for 12m or so, so really I guess I’m thinking of other servers actually.
I’m not sure of the overhead of implementing Excel Services, and I am concerned that many of these products seem to be getting more and more tangled up such that you can’t pick and choose the ones most useful for your org. It seems you have to get a whole heap of stuff to pick up the thing you want. I could be wrong there, I have purposely avoided looking at MOSS as it looks like a bit of a tar pit.

I do think that I really want to be working with organisations that recognise the value of decent infrastructure, be that Excel Services, Essbase or whatever. Maybe only those with .net 2.0? (maybe that is too limiting to be a viable business? especially as 3.0 is out and 3.5 will be out early 2008).

I am not planning on abandoning my current potential client set, more trying to encourage some more than others. (Maybe I should take ‘loves unravelling other peoples interlinked spreadsheet disasters’ off my CV?)(Replace with ‘implemented serveral succesful Excel Services projects internally at Codematic (eg shopping list and CD catalogue ;-) )’?)

What do you think? do your clients sort of get filtered out by virtue of the products and services you offer?



5 Responses to “Servers and spreadsheets”

  1. gobansaor Says:

    Those organisations living in spreadsheet hell could possibly be sold two types of service, a classic excel fire fighting service or a consultancy/build service that would help them move to a more sustainable situation i.e. moving to a cost effective server-backed environment. I offer the latter. In the past I would have used Oracle/SQLServer or Essbase as the technology behind this service. But I think I’ve found a gem of product to use for future work, it’s free, it’s open source, it’s a multi dimensional database (like Essbase), it’s a natural fit for Excel, it’s called Palo (, check it out.

  2. Harlan Grove Says:

    Regarding XL97 users and upgrading, from the user perspective what does XL2003 have that XL97 lacks?

    -OLAP cubes
    -COM add-in support
    -improvements in pivot tables and GETPIVOTDATA function
    -new VBA 6.x features (mostly additional string functions)
    -Data/Get External Data menu command improvements
    -colored worksheet tabs
    -means of putting full file pathnames in print headers/footers
    -various changes, mostly, but not all, improvements, to stats functions
    -usage restrictions AS LONG AS files are stored on supporting servers
    -improved stability

    For those users who don’t use OLAP cubes and don’t write VBA code themselves, there’s not been a whole lot of need for any upgrades since XL97. From my perspective, OLAP cubes and VBA 6.x are the ONLY significant improvements to Excel’s functionality from XL97 to XL2003.

    Yes, the improvements in some continuous distribution functions in XL2002 and XL2003 and the improvements in linear regression make XL2003 much better for those users who use them and only have Excel for that. But how much of the user base has benefited from those changes? How many orders of magnitude more users would have benefited from functions that would provide conditional summing or counting based on formatting, e.g., text color, background color, boldface?

    Odd as I am, I get the most benefit from the changes to Data-Get External Data, especially importing text files, which had to be opened as separate files in XL97 (unless you’re the odd type who used VBA’s Open, Line Input, Close to read them into already open workbooks).

    From my perspective, the cost of a single Office or stand-alone Excel upgrade in the last 10 years would have been substantially more than the value added to Excel. Only if I needed and KNEW I needed COM add-ins would the value of more recent Excel versions change relative to XL97.

    This may be an ignorant question, but from the USER’S perspective, what are the benefits of COM add-ins vs XLL add-ins? My big gripe against XLL add-in text functions is that they can only return up to 255 characters. If COM add-in text functions can return 32767 characters, that’d convince me of their value. If not, why should I prefer COM to XLL add-ins?

  3. Simon Says:

    Tom I’ve heard of Palo a few times, its on my (massive) list of stuff to look at. One day…
    Harlan I think the COM add-in thing is over played. Its easy to write an XLA wrapper, set a ref to the dll, and call straight out to the dll stuff. Unless there is loads of UI stuff I suppose.
    I’ll do a full post about COM v XLL so more people see it and join in.

  4. Ross Says:

    >>and I am concerned that many of these products seem to be getting more

    Does anyone else get te feeling that MS are throwing stuff at a wall and waiting to see what sticks?
    I can’t keep up with all the new things, but stuff like grove and infopath, look like solutions to problems that don’t exist?

  5. Simon Says:

    Ross, yes I get that feeling, I can’t help thinking we must be missing something. Keeping up is tough, I’m actively ignoring whole product areas so I can keep up with just a couple of things.

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