All The World’s a Spreadsheet
Google last week took aim at one of Microsoft’s bread-and-butter market segments: its Excel spreadsheet cash cow.
If Microsoft Corp. trod ungently on Google Inc.’s toes when it reconnoitered the desktop and enterprise search markets, Google returned the favor last week, striking at Microsoft (albeit in a heavily prototypical fashion), in one of Redmond’s own bread-and-butter market segments: its Excel cash cow.
The Excel spreadsheet is the single most pervasive business intelligence (BI) tool. Many BI consumers first cut their teeth on Excel, and even though BI pure play vendors have done their utmost to wean customers off of Excel, Microsoft’s market-leading spreadsheet continues to enjoy broad BI success.
But Excel’s pervasiveness—and its out-of-the-box lack of centralized consistency—has fueled what TDWI research and services director Wayne Eckerson calls the “spreadmarting” of enterprise BI. Spreadmarts are created by BI users at different times, Eckerson points out, because they’re based on different data sources and use different rules for defining metrics. As a result, he argues, they lead to a fractured view of the enterprise. Without a single version of corporate data and centrally defined metrics, employees can’t share a common understanding of the business. Enter, Google’s new Spreadsheets offering.
Google positions Spreadsheets as a free service that lets users securely create, store, and share basic spreadsheets on the Web. Google is not positioning Spreadsheets as an enterprise-class tool—at least, not yet.
Right now, officials describe Spreadsheets as a basic service that allows users to store spreadsheets on the Web. The new service enables real-time collaboration between and among users: in fact, several users can share, update, and edit the same spreadsheets at the same time. Users can tap Google’s AJaX-powered Chat service to collaborate while they’re editing or viewing spreadsheets.
Google Spreadsheets also lets spreadsheet owners control who may edit or view their spreadsheets by listing specific consumers by email address. Google Spreadsheets supports standard formats (like comma separated values, or Excel’s XLS spreadsheets) so officials say it can quickly import data from desktop applications, too.
Google Spreadsheets did not just appear out of thin air. It’s actually the product of the search giant’s acquisition of 2Web Technologies, which markets technology (dubbed XL2Web) that helps companies rapidly migrate Excel spreadsheets to the Web and expose them as fully dynamic HTML documents. In fact, 2Web’s XL2Web Publisher supports bread-and-butter Excel features such as cell validations, data formatting, styles, and graphs, too.
Like the Gmail service Google introduced more than two years ago, officials bill Google Spreadsheets as a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time offering. At present, officials say, it’s available only to a limited number of users on the Google Labs page at labs.google.com.
The Future of Office?
Google’s Spreadsheets gambit will almost certainly fuel additional speculation about an all-out attack on Microsoft’s Office citadel in which the twilighting of the Office franchise itself hangs in the balance. But Microsoft has taken concrete steps to redress many of Excel’s most obvious shortcomings: the version of Excel that ships with the 2007 Office System boasts improved integration with Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal environment, officials say. Excel 2007 and SharePoint feature a new collaborative facility, called Excel Services, that provides thin rendering and server-side execution of Excel sheets and Report Services reports.
“[W]hat we’re doing [in Office 2007] is we’re eliminating the need to use Excel as a database. What I mean by that is one of the reasons we see people using spreadmarts … is [because] it’s difficult to get access to information, it’s difficult to get access to data, so when they finally do get access to the data, they suck all of that into Excel,” says Alex Payne, senior product manager in Microsoft’s Office business applications group. “We’ve made it easier to connect to actual analytic data sources. Think of [something] like analysis services: I don’t have to know the connection string, I don’t have to remember the name of the server on which this [data] sits—we can manage all of this for you but still keep it controlled and locked down, [and] we eliminate the need for each time you go to work on data you pull it into a spreadsheet.”
TDWI’s Eckerson says Excel 2007 could help organizations get a grip on the spreadmart phenomenon. “[T]hin client Excel … will address the spreadmart problem by keeping both the data and the program on the server. Sharepoint will be used to publish Excel reports, so that might minimize the number of rogue spreadsheets that people create and pass around,” he observes. A technology fix is just part of the solution, Eckerson maintains: in the end, companies must establish and adhere to clear policies regarding spreadsheet creation, maintenance, and dissemination.
In the meantime, Google continues to groom its Spreadsheets offering to take on Excel. And with a pricetag that’s currently free-of-charge, Spreadsheets might ultimately find quite a few takers.
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.