After 30+ years, Excel still #1 office software

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In an age where technology continues to change and evolve at an accelerating pace, Excel remains the go-to software for small business and nonprofits decades after it was launched in 1985. It is the most widely utilized office software in the world with an estimated 120 million people using Excel. Its longevity can be attributed, in part, to its adaptability.

Even critics of the 1980s-era software acknowledge its dominance. A recent insurrection among finance officers stirred up new debate about Excel’s value.

A Jan. 4 ZDNet article confronted the debate from a different angle. The author, Mary Branscombe, argued that Excel's software can be a helpmate and a bridge to newer applications: “Whatever you want to do, you can probably do it in Excel, even if there are better options for each specific alternative — but there's virtually nothing else that can do all of it, and certainly nothing else that's on pretty much every corporate desktop, and already paid for.”

Branscombe argues that the ubiquity of Excel software means enterprise and small business owners will mold it to their uses rather than defect from it: “Excel is a great place to clean up data and hammer it into shape before you use it in another system,” she writes. “The most recent versions of Excel have tools from Microsoft Research to make that easier; from the Get and Transform tools that import data from almost anywhere more cleanly than copying and pasting, to calculated columns that can work out the pattern you use to create a summary field and fill it in for all your rows at once.”

She explains how adaptible Excel software can be when she used it to create the scripts that built the channel she ran on AOL. She combined autofill to generate unique page names with dropdown lists and an export macro which made programming the channel “literally drag and drop.”

However, chief financial officers of several high-profile companies are calling for more current applications for financial planning, analysis and reporting, according to a Nov. 29, 2017 Wall Street Journal article.

“Excel just wasn’t designed to do some of the heavy lifting that companies need to do in finance,” Paul Hammerman, a business applications analyst at Forrester Research Inc., told the newspaper.

But last fall, Microsoft improved Excel and countered some of these critics.

Brian Jones, head of Microsoft’s Excel product strategy, told the Wall Street Journal that Excel “has been evolving and that the latest version “allows multiple users to collaborate in a single document, crunch more than 100 million rows of data and comes with automated tools that find trends and suggest visualization. And while many finance-industry customers might graduate to more specialized software as their needs evolve, most of these solutions have an ‘export to Excel’ button.”

It’s possible that one of the reasons Excel has aged so well is that it does not have a forms-based user interface (UI). For decades now, almost all office software was based on the concept of filling out a form, submitting it and then seeing a table of results which usually led to another form to edit that data. The simple table UI for Excel allows for a lot of flexibility unlike most programs where data shows where the developers want it to show and you can’t change it. With Excel every user is empowered to view or edit the data in whatever complex way they want to – to the point that fine art has been made with spreadsheet programs. 

However, Excel does have some serious competition that is gaining popularity. Google ‘Sheets’ is part of Google’s licensed G Suite package for businesses and is free for individual use. It is undeniable that Sheets was heavily influenced by Excel (and VisiCalc before it), but it is primarily used for creating and editing spreadsheets while you're online. However, with several (about 8) steps including downloading a Chrome web app, you can access the office software and your documents when you're offline.

 Preston Gralla, Contributing Editor at Computerworld, did an excellent comparison between Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. His summary is below:  

"Which is better for your business, Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets? That depends on your needs.

For a larger template selection, better cell and text formatting, a greater choice of chart types, and better layout features, Excel is the clear winner. And although I didn’t test its advanced spreadsheet and data analysis tools, it’s renowned for those as well.

But for working with others, you’ll want to choose Google Sheets. It offers easy live, internet-based collaboration, something the Mac client version of Excel doesn’t have and only certain users of the Windows Excel client have. Google Sheets’ commenting capabilities are superior as well. And if you’re looking to gather feedback from people about your spreadsheet, it lets you do that easily by using a questionnaire."

While there may be simpler, free options like Google Sheets, as well as more robust and tailored solutions for finance professionals, today, Excel remains the default office software for crunching numbers, even if you are asking it to do things it wasn’t necessarily designed for. And, since it continues to evolve – including adding more collaboration tools – and it’s readily available on most enterprise desktops, it will likely be around for a while.