Excel add-in market

One of my favourite elements of working in Excel is the sense of community. There is a ton of excellent information freely available in many places. There is an army of keen, helpful experts ready and willing to answer any question loosely related to Excel/VBA and related technologies.

There is also a boatload of free utilities to add all sorts of useful functionality. Writing an add-in is a great way to learn about Excel. Distributing it is a great way to learn about the challenges of deployment. Giving it away for free is a great way to get coverage… or is it?

Would more people try a product if it cost money? perhaps a free 30 day trial followed by a 20/40/60 quid price?

Thats one question, here is another:

Does the existence of so much excellent free stuff actually damage the Excel user experience?

The obvious answer is no, of course not free stuff is great, it can only be good for users.

But thinking about it, I wonder if the market were more financially attractive, would more software vendors write more products? would those products be higher quality? would users get more choice? would competition improve price/quality? might it improve longevity of support? or support in general?

Many of the add-ins I have used would easily be worth 50 quid thinking rationally. All they would need to do is save an hour or 2 and they have paid for themselves (or half an hour for some folks?).

I have bought quite a few general applications, and the odd add-in, but actually there don’t seem to be that many for sale.

What do you think? would a more lucrative market help? or would it damage our friendly community?

cheers

simon

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21 Responses to “Excel add-in market”

  1. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    Not sure if by “free”, you mean free as in drug dealing, but to me the only reason to give valuable stuff away is just to bootstrap consulting contracts. That only makes economical sense if you have nearby customers. And that’s why I don’t do it.

    As for losing the opportunity to better relate people out there and vendors, it hits home. The Office marketplace website is just a dead place (I can see it in the referrers of my website : people find me with Google). And that could easily be solved if some people somehow managed to put together Office marketplace and the kind of overwhelming traffic that Excel related newsgroups get. I’m not sure why this hasn’t happened yet, but I see an opportunity.

    “challenges of deployment”

    Ah! ;-)
    Hits home. “But it works on my machine!”…

  2. Nick Hebb Says:

    I think the Excel add-in market is big. In fact, I think it is very big.

    Don’t make the mistake thinking that customers are privy to perfect information. You’re an Excel tech-head. Most users aren’t. So when they search for something, they might not know where to go for the free stuff.

    Also, trust and support are important. Are users and IT departments going to trust an add-in signed with someone’s personal cert? What if they come to rely on an add-in and things go wrong. Will the free tools offer support?

    Business customers are more than willing to pay for these things. You should look through your code base, put together a product, and give it a try.

  3. Simon Says:

    Stephane
    My understanding on VS2008 is that you need to deploy C run times like 2005, do you know if thats right? looks like I’ll be sticking with VS6 like you then…
    Free/drug dealing – yes good summary.
    I don’t know why there isn’t a vibrant market around Excel, there seems to be a culture of ‘free’, which I think discourages many potential market makers.

  4. Nick Hebb Says:

    BTW, take a look at ozgrid.com if you’re curious about the number of add-ins on the market. (Of course, some are utter crap, but that’s a separate topic.)

  5. Simon Says:

    Nick
    I have several pretty complete products around xlanalyst. Basically Vista and Excel 2007 added too much pain to my test matrix so I shelved them. That and the VB6 uncertainties.

    Thanks for the comments, all very valid. I currently have Verisign trying to poach me off Thawte – odd as they are the same company.

  6. Simon Says:

    I know there are lots of add-ins on the market, I wonder how many of those ozgrid folks are making enough of a living to provide the trust and support you mention?

    Some of them take a big dent in credibility by selling stuff that is basic functionality for 20 bucks. But I guess thats where your perfect info point comes in.

  7. Nick Hebb Says:

    > Some of them take a big dent in credibility by selling stuff
    > that is basic functionality for 20 bucks.

    Agreed. I can’t remember the site name, but there’s one that sells dozens of “Add Borders to Your Cells” type of add-ins. OK, I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

    Over the years I have seen a number of solid add-ins that make their companies decent cash, but the market is mature so there may be a saturation issue.

  8. sam Says:

    All Excel 2003 and below XLA addins are free…..

    That leaves you with XLL’s 2007 XLAM and COM addins – They can be sold….because as yet there is no easy way to break them….sad but true

  9. Simon Says:

    Sam
    I don’t think you are far off from an individual pov. companies though are more willing to pay for the assurance of support.

    I am wondering about releasing stuff for free and offering an annual maintenance/support contract for money. That seems to work well for some of the open source folks.

    Nick, that sounds iike the site I was thinking of. I know some xla authors that are making a good living

  10. Jon Peltier Says:

    Simon: “Basically Vista and Excel 2007 added too much pain to my test matrix so I shelved them.”

    I haven’t done much around Vista, other than a VM or two to watch for funny behavior. It seems that instaling into the user’s Application Data directory rather than Program Files is enough to mitigate the file protection warnings.

    I’ve done a reasonable amount to make sure my programs work in 2007. Simplifying the menu a bit when the program detects it’s opening in xl12, and for premium programs working out a few simple details to add a tab to the ribbon. A simple static UI is really easier than we’ve made it sound with all of our whining. Most of the code runs the same, and here and there it’s necessry to swap the order of a couple statements or include a previously optional argument.

    There are a couple of problems I’ve encountered in 2007 for which I’ve found no relief. For example, the chart events that I use to help a user select a subset of his plotted points or zoom in on a region of his chart do not work properly. All I can do is report them as bugs and hope they’ll get to the fixes in time for Office 14.

  11. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    @Simon

    “Visual 2008, Visual 2005, C run-time”

    Same crappy WinSXS deployment.

    “trust an add-in signed”

    I don’t think you need to sign your products to sell to the major corps out there. Mine are not. (I ship products running outside Excel).

    “I don’t know why there isn’t a vibrant market around Excel, there seems to be a culture of ‘free’, which I think discourages many potential market makers.”

    I think you can find a sweat spot. If you manage to be number one in Google results for an issue with Excel, you’ve just found a niche!

  12. Simon Says:

    hmm
    sos is second behind Nick for ‘ribbon hater’, now just need a way to cash in…

  13. Harlan Grove Says:

    Deployment is an issue for add-ins. It’s fine for me to use various add-ins, but when I’m developing something for others in the department in which I work (I’m an in-house developer) I can’t rely on them having anything other than the add-ins that Excel installs (but doesn’t activate) by default. I’ve been able to get the IT department to accept .REG files that activate Solver and the ATP, but it’d take 6 months and several economic benefit analyses to convince them to distribute, say, MOREFUNC.XLL. Not worth the effort.

    I use a half dozen outside add-ins myself, but only as part of the development process. If I’m representative of in-house developers, the market for add-ins is less than 5% of PROFICIENT Excel users. As for small businesses, unless Excel is a hobby for the boss or one of the handful of employees, there’s minimal market for add-ins. That leaves midsize businesses which could have several people performing analyses or trying to automate some processes without being overseen by a suffocating IT bureaucracy. I don’t know how much of a potential market that may be.

    I don’t think end users of Excel models developed in-house are a market for add-ins, free or $$. I know it’s hard for us to realize, but most people use Excel as little as they can get away with. That leaves people who use Excel a lot. If those are people who build spreadsheets mostly or entirely for their own use, maybe they’re a potential market, but they’d be more of a market for vertical add-ins (industry-specific) than horizontal ones.

    My perspective may be skewed, but I’d figure that the market for horizontal Excel add-ins is no greater than the market for Monarch, if anyone else here knows what Monarch is. If you don’t know what Monarch is, maybe that serves as an indicator for the scale of the Excel horizontal add-in market.

  14. Harlan Grove Says:

    @Jon, so Vista really isn’t all that secure? Intalling into %APPDATA%!? I suppose it’d also allow installing into %TEMP%. Please tell me this is stuff that only writes to HKCU in the registry.

    Tangent: has anyone come across Excel 2003 or prior VBA code that throws errors in Excel 2007 (aside from overflow from assigning Cells.Count to a Long)? Lotus fubarred 123 LotusScript code between release 8 and 9, changing the names of the collation sequences, so scripts involving sorting in release 8 threw runtime errors in release 9. Let me repeat, that was for RECORDED scripts. Talk about minimal regression testing!

  15. Jon Peltier Says:

    AppData is within the user’s Documents directory. I don’t know any details, other than a few people testing some add-ins in Vista got errors related to saving of information within the Program Files subdirectory, and changing to AppData avoided these errors. My add-ins write data to text or binary files in the add-in directory, not to the registry, so I can’t comment on that.

    Regarding errors in 2007, do you mean small stupid errors like this line of code, which works in 2003:

    ActiveChart.SeriesCollection(1).ErrorBar Direction:=xlX, Include:=xlPlusValues, Type:=xlCustom, Amount:=”=Sheet1!R43C3:R43C8″

    The code is actually recorded as above in 2003, while in 2007 the recording doesn’t work right, specifying Amount:=0. Ho hum. The problem with the 2003 code is that the ‘MinusValues’ argument, which is optional in 2003 and earlier, and in the 2007 documentation, is not treated as optional by 2007. Same with ‘Amount’ if you only specify negative custom error bar values. It is fixed by including MinusValues:=”0″

    ActiveChart.SeriesCollection(1).ErrorBar Direction:=xlX, Include:=xlPlusValues, Type:=xlCustom, MinusValues:=”0″, Amount:=”=Sheet1!R43C3:R43C8″

    There are numerous issues like this, really small unless you need to correct them in a zillion copies of your program.

    Chart events don’t all fire properly on an embedded chart. This is somewhat more major, in line with the announced deprecation of the ‘sized with window’ property of chart sheets. They made practically no changes to chart functionality, but they “improved” chart formattability

  16. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    Simon said “sos is second behind Nick for ‘ribbon hater’, now just need a way to cash in…”

    I sense irony. ;-) But seriously though, you could indeed cash in by arranging a commission with vendors selling ribbon related tools (such as the ones that recreate toolbars). The most simple way to achieve that, short of getting in touch with the vendors, is to just setup Google Adsense. (don’t know if WordPress allows that, but if it does not, perhaps it’s time to find a better blog host).

  17. Dennis Wallentin Says:

    Jon et al,

    The Program Files area is a protected area in the new security paradigm that Vista relys on.

    It’s good You mention it because this is a typical case where Excel developers need to rethink their strategy. Another areas are deployment and the Ribbon UI.

    Kind regards,
    Dennis

  18. Jon Peltier Says:

    @Simon – “now just need a way to cash in…”

    Write RibbonX for existing programs.

    I’ve started to get clients from the past return to me to upgrade their apps for 2007. It isn’t too tricky: test the VBA to find where it slips, check out the worksheet logic, and build a satellite xlam add-in with the RibbonX code. I use a technique pretty similar to what Ron de Bruin talks about on his web site, specifically example 2 on this page:

    http://www.rondebruin.nl/compatiblemenu.htm

    So all the code remains in the original add-in, and it is the installed add-in in any version, but if it detects 2007 when it opens it also opens the xlam add-in.

    Another good resource is “RibbonX” by Martin, Puls, and Hennig. It just came out, so it’s based on RTM, not Beta, and it’s less expensive than typical technical books of it’s size tend to be.

  19. Charles Says:

    I have a foot in both the free addin camp (Name Manager) and the chargeable (FastExcel).

    Both these addins are internally complex high-function tools targeted at serious Excel users/Developers.

    The freebie Name Manager undoubtedly helps both Jan Karel and me to get business, but we have no way of telling if we could have got better results by charging $19.95 for it.

    We do not track who downloads Name Manager, but the download numbers are large.

    I do track FastExcel license buyers, and the majority are corporate and single-license rather than private or multi-license.

    Of course FastExcel also helps me get additional business!

    Overall Decision Models makes most of its money from developing custom VBA solutions based on Excel and RDBs, with a nice sideline in selling FastExcel.

  20. Stephen Bullen Says:

    Most of the addins on my site were created as a side-effect of investigating what a new feature can do, or how a new technique can be used. I find it helps me to have something definite to develop towards, so I’m forced to sort out all the gotchas that I might otherwise be tempted to skip. All of those addins have been given away free, as an altruistic move to pay back the community for all the help I got when I was starting out. I don’t think I’ve had any noteworthy financial benefit from doing them, as I’ve had a very small number of long-term consulting gigs or permanent jobs throughout. I’ve also had to provide almost no support for them, despite them being very widely used.

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