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Technology CompaniesGoogleThoughts on working with online spreadsheets

Thoughts on working with online spreadsheets

I’ve been using Google Spreadsheets more and more. Why? Yes, it is limited. No graphs; there are bugs–it does lock up every now and then; and control of what it displays is limited. However, for building up and maintaining lists of things–particularly those that I want to share with others–it works quite well.

Here’s what I’ve noticed.

I use several different computers, upgrade a lot, and frankly run into versioning problems when trying to maintain Excel spreadsheets or other documents over long periods of time. I could set up a server that could hold the documents, which could also let me share them with others, but this would be one more thing to maintain. One more thing to worry about attackers hitting. One more thing to go wrong. It’s the wrong direction. I don’t want to become an IT administrator. I want to just get things done.

I also don’t have to worry about installing Excel on all my machines and worrying about licensing. Have I used this key before? Do I need to uninstall a version of Excel somewhere else to stay in compliance? What a pain when you’re dealing with multiple machines. I know this problem will only get worse with the more machines I have and the longer I use them. Again, I don’t want to be a licensing expert, I just want to get things done.

Google Spreadsheets goes a long way to solve the installation, licensing, backup, and sharing problem.

There are some drawbacks to Google Spreadsheets though. The functionality is limited. There’s no charting for instance, which is something I’d really like to see. You can’t format the display very well either. Dan Bricklin’s wikiCalc does a much better job here. I can envision building forms in wikiCalc–maybe even ink enabled ones.

Although Google Spreadsheets is limited, I have been able to successfully import several of my Excel spreadsheets. So far so good. Admittedly, there was nothing fancy in them. The most complicated one simply had half-a-dozen sheets in it with a couple dozen columns on each sheet and approximately a hundred items per page. I have noticed that the save seems to take awhile, but this hasn’t gotten in the way–yet. It’s merely long enough that I notice it. Like I mentioned earlier, though, I have seen Google Spreadsheets lock up–during save. No data was lost though.

If Google can enhance the functionality of Spreadsheets I think they have a big winner here–particularly with the ultra-large, small business market. If you don’t mind having your data stored remotely, I can see a lot of people migrating to Google Spreadsheets. Lots.

Now there are some drawbacks to the Google approach. You have to be able to get to the Internet to get to your data. This can be a problem. There are times when things go awry and the Internet connection goes down, but the business has to keep going. A limited solution is smart caching on the client side–maybe we’ll see this someday.

Google Spreadsheets is also a little clunkier to use that Excel. I seem to accidentally cause scrolling more than I want when editing cells. And sometimes the editing mode I get into confuses me. Do I press Enter now? Or use the cursor keys? Or tap on another cell? Anyway, now that I think about it, maybe I just need a bigger display with more resolution. Hmmm. That would at least decrease the scrolling issues.

Over the last year, there’s been quite a bit of speculation about whether Google Spreadsheets would challenge Microsoft’s Excel. Most say “no–at least not now. Google Spreadsheets is too limited.” While I agree that in a feature-by-feature comparison, Excel blows away Google Spreadsheets, nonetheless, when looking at “ease of use” in terms of the bigger picture (backups, sharing, etc), I’d almost give the edge to Google right now. Yeah, almost. It’s not quite there–but it’s very close. It’s close enough that I’ll use it for maintaining simple spreadsheets. It’s close enough that I’d recommend it to friends. Still, Google does need to add a bit more functionality, including charting and the like. It won’t be prime time until then. But how hard can this be?

What does this mean for Excel? I’ll still use it. I work with a few people that want me to email them data in Excel spreadsheets. And I still find I can work faster in Excel too. The user-interface is more polished and this makes a noticeable difference in my productivity. Will I worry about having Excel installed on all my systems though? Not any more. Just where I need it.

For an individual, small business, or a club or church or small organization trying to maintain a spreadsheet, Google Spreadsheets may just be the way to go. My prediction? As long as Google can figure out a way to offer Google Spreadsheets at no cost to the user, I can see Spreadsheets growing in popularity over the next few years. The transition will start at the low-end of the market, but as features are added, I imagine it’ll migrate into enterprises too–especially where data is facing outside of the corporate firewall anyway, such as to partner portals and the like.

In short, I’m convinced that online spreadsheets can work. It’s not quite prime time, but the clock is ticking. Fast.

Loren Heiny (1961 - 2010) was a software developer and author of several computer language textbooks. He graduated from Arizona State University in computer science. His first love was robotics.

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17 years ago

Shoot me if I ever use a web page to make a spread sheet. Google Spreadcheeks sucks… Have you ever installed FolderShare? It solves the sync problem pretty nicely. Oh and you don’t have to sign in every time you want to use it. 🙂

17 years ago

FolderShare helps give access to files on different computers, which is good, but then again you have to be sure to have Excel on every machine that you’re going to potentially need to access the files on. This is a drawback the more machines you have.

I jump between so many machines, OS versions, and the like that installing Excel on all my systems and consuming a license for each of them–even when I might only use them heavily three or four times a month on that particular computer–doesn’t make a lot of sense and it’s a pain to manage. It’s not a big burden, but it’s a pain nonetheless that goes away with an online spreadsheet app. After using Google Spreadsheets for a couple months I began to see how nice this “feature” was.

I agree with you though that the online capabilities of a spreadsheet is too limited today. For someone that uses Excel extensively I’m sure they’d think it’s a toy. I’ve realized, though, how many little things I do, which I often want to share, for which it is acceptable. (Google does need to add more features, however.)

When I started this experiment, I was fairly sure I’d decide that Google Spreadsheets isn’t up to par. I was surprised, however, how passable it was for how I use spreadsheets. Your mileage may vary.