Adobe morphs the online spreadsheet

Adobe's new online spreadsheet, Tables, is more like a database than a financial modeling tool. Its target is all those business people who collaborate on datasets such as inventories, price lists, mailing lists and downloads from corporate applications.

One thing I found especially interesting about Adobe's new Acrobat.com announcements this week (Techmeme coverage here) is its hybrid spreadsheet/database application called Tables.

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I already discussed Adobe's subscription model in another post earlier this month, What your bank can teach you about freemium, so I won't elaborate on that aspect of the announcement beyond mentioning that we can now start to make a judgement whether Adobe has followed my fourth guideline, "Price for value." Here's the verdict from CloudAve's Krishnan Subramanian: "The frugal minded SaaS user in me thinks that this price is steep compared to Adobe's competitors but there may be others who would like the user interface and may be willing to pay big money for it." That suggests, given there are still a set of services available for no charge, that Adobe has got the pricing more or less at the right level. I suspect we'll see some more developments as the offering matures, too, which may add to the perceived value of the subscription plans.

I've called Tables a hybrid because, although its user interface is that of a spreadsheet, its function set is focused on tabular manipulation of rows and columns, which makes it more like a database than a financial modeling tool. Briefing me about the announcement, Erik Larson, director of marketing and product management, told me: "We're not going to build a big financial analysis engine. It's much more about collaborating on data with other people."

Adobe has developed the application this way, Larson explained, because its research found that the most common form of data in shared spreadsheets is tabular. Financial models are more likely to be an individual undertaking — someone sits down in front of the spreadsheet and then builds the model. Other people may look at the finished spreadsheet to run the model, but it's actually counter-productive to have several people working in parallel to build it, in much the same way that you wouldn't have several different programmers collaboratively writing code unless you had some kind of source code control system in place to prevent unintended conflicts and bugs.

Examples of tabular spreadsheets include inventories and price lists, mailing lists and sets of data extracted from other applications for review, such as downloading a prospect list from Salesforce.com. Of course the core structure is predetermined, and what's then useful to collaborate on is filtering or supplementing the data for further actions. By the way, these use cases date back to the earliest days of spreadsheets — Excel's predecessor as spreadsheet market leader, Lotus 1-2-3, was so named because it added basic graphics and database as second and third functions alongside the original financial manipulation capabilities of the pioneering VisiCalc spreadsheet.

Focusing on this kind of use case has allowed Tables to go much further than rival online spreadsheets, most notably Google's, in adding functions that support collaborative working. In particular, there's a private view option that allows one user to filter and sort the data without affecting how other users see it. When working in shared view, the application will warn you if you're about to change a cell that others are working on at the same time.

But of course what Adobe has probably worked out as a result of its research (and this is just speculation on my part rather than anything I've been told) is that there's a far larger existing market for Tables among users of online databases than there is among online spreadsheet users. There are literally dozens of online database tools, many of them extant since the late 1990s, that have given business people a means of sharing data (mostly excerpted from Excel or exported from other applications in CSV format) without the security and error risks that come from emailing spreadsheets around. Probably the best known is Intuit QuickBase, but there are many others. Targeting the dowdy old online database market doesn't make for such a sexy headline as challenging Google and Microsoft with an online spreadsheet, but this is the sweetspot that Tables is aimed at. With its Acrobat franchise, it has the reach to bring many more users online than earlier contenders have managed.

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