Spreadsheet by Google?

First there was Visicalc, then Lotus 1-2-3, then Excel, now . . . Google?
Esther SheinAugust 21, 2006

Move over, Excel — but not too far. There’s a new spreadsheet in town, it’s from arch-rival Google, and it’s free.

It is also, even by Google’s admission, rudimentary and likely to stay that way, and very unlikely to win the hearts, minds, or keystrokes of Excel power users.

Still, the concept — a Web-based spreadsheet optimized for collaboration — is intriguing, as is Google’s apparent eagerness to go wherever Microsoft goes. Early testers of Google Spreadsheets say while it is intuitive and user-friendly, the spreadsheet has nowhere near the functionality of Excel, and is geared more to small businesses that don’t need to tie it in to back-end systems, and to consumers looking to do basic calculations or use it as a list-making tool or simple database.

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“I was able to import Excel files into it, and they translated pretty well,” notes Scott Testa, Chief Operating Officer at Mindbridge Software, a content management provider in Norristown, Pa. And Testa says he welcomes the ability to collaborate almost in real time, which Excel does not provide. But he isn’t planning to make a wholesale switch anytime soon. “Even the spreadsheet from has more functionality than Google,” he says, referring to an open-source alternative.

Michelle Webster, a program director at Framingham, Mass.-based technology research firm IDC, calls the spreadsheet a “nifty new product” that is part of growing trend toward giving people tools to collaborate online. But she adds that Excel and Google are at “completely different ends of the spectrum.”

Google’s spreadsheet is not meant to be a replacement for power Excel users, who require the ability to generate indexes, tables of contents, macros, and all the “highly evolved formatting that corporations use,” Webster says. Companies that need to integrate their spreadsheets with back-end systems like ERP in order to tackle financial reporting or other sophisticated corporate duties will have difficulty doing that with a Web-based spreadsheet, she says.

Rochelle acknowledges that most of Excel’s more complex features are missing, but says the goal was to offer something that would give “the right balance between sharing and features,” and would be tailored for the small business user.

Even small business users are questioning whether the ability to collaborate is worth making the switch. Gail Sheldon, an investment assistant at Seidman Investment Advisors who depends heavily on Excel, says she likes the Google spreadsheet visually, but finds its usability to be limited. Formatting, for example, is “laborious,” and the copy/paste function is clunky. “I have a running list of stock symbols and associated company names in an Excel file,” Sheldon says. “If I want to copy some of that data into another spreadsheet, Google didn’t let me do that.”

A spokesperson for Microsoft says the feedback they have received from customers is “they want more from their applications, not less,” and that Google’s spreadsheet “apparently competes more directly with a number of Web-based productivity products . . .” Google says its spreadsheet offering is experimental and it plans to limit the number of users, at least for now.