Radical Cells

Free spreadsheets? Google, OpenOffice, and others offer intriguing alternatives to Microsoft Excel.
John GoffFebruary 1, 2008

Contrary to what your kids may believe, the personal computer was not created solely to provide access to YouTube, Facebook, and iTunes. In the early days, in fact, no one was quite sure what burning need the PC might satisfy, and even IBM found it difficult to get customers excited about the company’s beige boxes.

Enter the electronic spreadsheet, first in the form of the pioneering VisiCalc program and then, shortly after, in the more friendly (and IBM-tailored) form of Lotus 1-2-3. Suddenly, companies had a compelling reason to buy PCs by the truckload, and they did. The spreadsheet became the original “killer app.” Married with the silicon chips in a PC, the spreadsheet put the crunch into numbers-crunching like never before and transformed a novelty device into an essential business tool.

Since then, corporate computing has undergone any number of transformations, from ERP to E-mail to eBay addiction, but the venerable spreadsheet has changed little. While Lotus 1-2-3 eventually succumbed to the more graphical and more powerful Microsoft Excel, basic spreadsheet functionality has remained largely the same for the past two decades. True, Microsoft has made a continuous series of refinements amid virtually no competition whatsoever, but today’s version of Excel would be instantly familiar to someone who hadn’t used it for a decade. You could argue, in fact, that that is a large part of the perpetual appeal of the spreadsheet: once you learn how to ride it you never forget.

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But you do have to keep on paying. And even as you pony up yet another upgrade or licensing fee, you may begin to chafe at the lack of substantive improvement, not to mention the constantly running meter.

That may be about to change. Over the past few years, several programs have been released that take aim squarely — or at least obliquely — at Excel. Most are part of online, integrated suites that tout two prime advantages: low or no cost, and true Web-based architectures that allow for sharing spreadsheet files on a global basis.

ThinkFree Office, for example, is an online suite of common workplace applications that includes a potent spreadsheet dubbed Calc. The spreadsheet boasts 300 Excel-compatible functions including chart/graph capabilities, protected sheets, password compatibility, and more. Sheet, part of the Zoho office productivity suite from AdventNet, marks its two-year birthday this month in tech and has expanded its features on a near-weekly basis since its inception. OpenOffice is a multilingual, multiplatform product that is part of the open-source movement. Its spreadsheet component is also called Calc (or, more accurately, CALC) and works with several operating systems including Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. WikiCalc is a free program devised by VisiCalc co-inventor Dan Bricklin that combines the authoring ease of a wiki with the familiar look and feel of a spreadsheet to tackle a range of data-management chores often handled by spreadsheets; it’s designed primarily as a way to post information to Web pages and, like the other products mentioned above, to facilitate collaboration via the Internet.

And then there’s Google, which may loom as Microsoft’s biggest competitor in spreadsheets much as it does in so many other tech arenas. Google launched its online office suite, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, in October 2006, and since then the “I’m Feeling Lucky” folks have repeatedly extended its capabilities, adding a presentation program, charting, and a vastly improved file-management system. In September, the company rechristened the whole bundle “Google Docs.”

The company claims there are now millions of Google Docs users, and some analysts believe the product suite — which is free for those who don’t require call-center support or unlimited storage space — could win even more defectors. “I used to think that Google’s place in the office suite was to complement Microsoft,” says Jim Murphy, a vice president of research at AMR Research. “But Google is now shaping up as a real competitor to Microsoft.”

As with the other companies and organizations in this space, Google has been demure regarding its ambitions. Last year, Google CFO George Reyes told CFO that the company’s free spreadsheet was aimed at individuals and small businesses whose spreadsheet needs were relatively modest compared with larger companies that rely on Excel.

But if these competitors do in fact manage to cut into Microsoft’s dominance, then the company may have no one to blame but itself. While Microsoft continues to make noises about its “Live” Web-based collaboration platform, Excel remains a distinctly disconnected program. Users have long complained about the difficulties of sharing a worksheet with colleagues, a process that typically involves E-mailing files back and forth. At best, templates and formulas get tampered with. At worst, multiple versions of the same spreadsheet begin cropping up.

Ironically, much of the popularity of this new breed of Web-based spreadsheets stems from them delivering on what Microsoft has long maintained is a primary characteristic of its Office suite: the ability of the various components to share data and work together seamlessly. “Microsoft Office is a collection of originally separate programs that have been kind of melded together, but they don’t mesh all that well,” says Bruce Byfield, an open-source software writer and analyst. “All of the different OpenOffice applications have been designed to run together, since they share the same code.”

Jeffrey Causey, president of consultancy Strategic Innovations, began experimenting with a Linux-based beta version of OpenOffice about four years ago. He soon discovered that Calc efficiently copies material to and from other OpenOffice applications. “That’s supposed to be Microsoft’s strength, but it’s actually easier in OpenOffice,” says Causey.

Acceptable Limits?

That’s not to say these spreadsheets don’t have drawbacks. Most are still in some form of beta testing. Some are free in their basic form but entail a fee if support services or more muscular versions are needed. And often they require some IT savvy to download and install. Also, the fact that they are hosted rather than residing on users’ PCs may raise security concerns for some companies.

While these programs’ Internet provenance aids collaboration, it can also constrain performance. AdventNet’s Sheet, for instance, seems to struggle with large files — that is, spreadsheets sprouting 300 or so rows. A recent demo of Google Spreadsheet exhibited some latency as well, while “[OpenOffice’s] Calc has traditionally been a little slower [than Excel] at certain advanced calculations,” says analyst Byfield.

And despite ambitious efforts to add features, few would argue that Excel reigns supreme in the do-it-all category. Then again, very few corporate employees — even veteran finance-department staffers — routinely use all the features of Excel, or even come close. Indeed, ultimately a major part of the appeal of free spreadsheets may be their limitations — that is, the focus on delivering the three dozen or so computational features that most employees rely on.

As Bricklin told CFO in 2003, spreadsheets represent “a very powerful combination of restrictions and freedom. When you work with numbers, a grid of some sort proves to be extremely useful. The spreadsheet combines basic calculating, simple numerical computing, and other functions with a layout for expressing and presenting results.” That, he said, makes the spreadsheet a very powerful general-purpose tool, and “general-purpose tools are really hard to knock off.”

Whether one company’s specific version of a general-purpose tool can be knocked off is another matter, of course. Microsoft probably isn’t losing any sleep over the fate of Excel, but the sudden appearance of so many free alternatives may prompt some users to run the numbers like they never have before.