In a previous post SQLite as the MP3 of Data I explained why I like and use SQLite. Well, if SQLite is the MP3, then Excel is the iPod. Like the iPod, Excel is proprietary, relative inexpensive, loved by its users and much like Apple uses the iPod to achieve and hold dominance in the digital music arena, Microsoft does likewise with Excel in the “downloaded data” domain. Many professionals in the music business look down their noses at the quality of MP3 recordings and tut-tut Apple’s commercially focused drive for total mindshare; likewise, many IT pros ignore the humble list (aka the table) and look on Excel as the source of all evil in the data world.
Excel’s primary use for many is as a utility for making and managing lists. Lists are the bedrock of commercial data processing, not nested structures such as XML or JSON, just good old, simple as it can get, lists. (I’ve written about this before in Tables Vs XML, the data lingua franca debate.) User generated tables downloaded from great list-generating beasts such as ERP or CRM systems are crucial in the day-to-day running of all businesses. (CRM is essentially yet another maker and manager of lists).
It was MS’s recognition of this use-case and the subsequent re-engineering of the spreadsheet concept to better support lists that (alongside packaging it with Word, PowerPoint and Outlook in a single integrated product) helped make Excel the top dog in the spreadsheet world. It is of course this same primacy of the list that exposes Excel to ever growing competition from good enough online spreadsheets products such as Google Docs and Zoho, hence the free Office 2010 Web Apps to stem the loss of entry-level mindshare.
Excel as a list handler may be its mass market appeal, but it is as an end-user focused calculation, transformation and reporting engine that it really shines. It is here that MS’s dominance of the spreadsheet market is secure but often it seemed that MS lost sight of this side of the Excel market, populated by the people I would call datasmiths; things like the Excel 2007’s emphasis on the Ribbon, which many serious users saw as fluff and change for change sake, and the dropping of VBA support from the Mac version of Office (now reversed), come to mind. But with the upcoming 2010 version, MS looks like it has regained that old time religion with new datasmith focused features such as new and improved formulae, sparklines and, my favourite, the PowerPivot addon.
What makes Excel (and spreadsheets in general) work so superbly as an end-user datasmithing tool? In the spreadsheets-in-general category I’d venture:
- Immediacy; design and run in the one environment, change a formula or change some data, immediate feedback.
- Tactile ownership of a solution; no you can’t actually touch the dataset but it feels like you can; you can view it, filter it, save it somewhere safe, stop, have a cup of coffee then resume working on it,and this is very important, only share your workings when you’re good and ready.
- Functional programming via formulae; the no side-effects other than a return value in the host cell seems to make formula programming attractive to a much large sub-set of “civilians” that is the case with even the simplest of script-based programming languages.
In the Excel specific category:
- The Excel object-model scripted by VBA; although formula programming is the bread’n’butter of Excel development, VBA, in the hands of both professionals and gifted-amateurs, provides the “solve-any-problem” magic dusting.
- The Pivot Table (and now in 2010, the PowerPivot); the killer-app within a killer-app, this is the single feature that most Excel datasmiths just cannot give up.
iPod users like freedom and convenience and so do Excel users, woe betide any IT organisation that fails to recognise this, and worse still, attempts to take this freedom away!
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