A First Look at Apple's Numbers spreadsheet

A First Look at Apple's Numbers spreadsheet

Summary: The other day a colleague who uses OS X spoke to me, angry at the fact that Powerpoint's "auto-save" feature hadn't actually done any saving and a crash left him with hours of work undone. He asked me "what do you use to build presentation on the Mac?

TOPICS: Apple, Mobility, Software

The other day a colleague who uses OS X spoke to me, angry at the fact that Powerpoint's "auto-save" feature hadn't actually done any saving and a crash left him with hours of work undone. He asked me "what do you use to build presentation on the Mac?" Keynote, of course. His next question threw me: "So, do you use Pages instead of Word?" Turns out, I don't. I'd never even considered it.

So, now, hot on the heels of that conversation comes Apple's release of iWork '08, including updates to Keynote and Pages as well as a brand new addition: Numbers, Apple's spreadsheet. I was kind of anxious to try it out, so I picked up a copy and walked through it. Bottom line: I'm pretty impressed.

Numbers isn't a world changing paradigm shift. Rather it's Apple doing what Apple does best: improving, refining, and concentrating on user experience. Here's a few cool things I noted.

The most obvious change is evident when you start Numbers up: there's no ever expanding grid of cells. Instead you have a workspace (called a "sheet") in which you can create tables. Each table is it's own spreadsheet, expandable, formatable, and movable. You can put as many tables (and associated charts) on a sheet as you like. Each file can have multiple sheets.

Another change seems kind of obvious once you think about it: tables, rows and columns can all have names. You can refer to them in formulas by name. This makes formulas much easier to read and understand--no more going back to the table and hunting down cells by Cartesian coordinate to see if it's really the one you want in that formula.

Lots of little goodies are scattered throughout the product. I like the ability to add rows or columns just by dragging tabs. Cell controls, including checkboxes, sliders, steppers, and pop-ups, let you control the range of values in cells and how they're entered. Styles, colors, and fonts are easy to manage. Maybe the best part: I couldn't find a pivot-table anywhere.

When you get ready to print, select "print view" and then drag tables and chart around or resize them until the pages look like you want. Add text and graphical objects--even audio and movie clips--on the sheet and when it looks right print it.

With all the innovation in the user-interface, this is still a spreadsheet and will feel familiar. Formulas work like you expect them to. The equals sign is how you indicate a formula and a dollar sign can be used to indicate an absolute value for a cell reference (although using a name is a better way to do this now). Mostly you'll find yourself at home and if you're familiar with Keynote or Pages, the interface will be quite familiar.

I was discussing Numbers with a few of my students yesterday and commented that Apple had the luxury of starting with a blank slate and picking the things they liked from Excel while innovating where they saw the opportunity. I think the result is much more usable than Excel. I still haven't decided whether to use Pages instead of Word, but I will be using Numbers.

Topics: Apple, Mobility, Software

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • As usual MS's contibution was negligible

    "I was discussing Numbers with a few of my students yesterday and commented
    that Apple had the luxury of starting with a blank slate and picking the things they
    liked from Excel while innovating where they saw the opportunity."

    Let get our history right. The first spreadsheet was VisiCalc and it was published
    by Personal Software in 79 for the Apple II. Other GUI spreadsheets predate also

    MS has made negligible contribution to either spreadsheets or spreadsheet
    interfaces. The original creators of VisiCalc have not made much money from their
    original ideas because at the time software could not be patented - the irony with
    MS today is enormous.

    Excel is prevalent because of the MS marketing muscle and the questionable
    withholding of technical details of the in development windows 3 whilst allowing
    (encouraging?) members of the windows team to move to the office team. As a
    result MS was able to release their Office version many months before competing
    products for windows 3.

    Apple continues the innovation with Numbers, but ideas copied from other
    spreadsheets should be attributed to the original creators i.e not MS.
    Richard Flude
    • Or it could boil down to

      the fact that you are obviously slanted against anything MS that you natually see all things being invented by Apple.

      Even if another company had done it years before, you still view it as a new, exciting, never been done before Apple inevention.
      John Zern
      • Sorry, where did he...

        say that any of these were invented by Apple?

        Try reading without your anti-Apple bias.
        • oh come on

          He starts out his post declaring Microsoft's contributions are negligible. That wasn't even the gist of the story...didn't have anything to do with any of it. The blogger may have strangely made it known the Microsoft did not invent the spreadsheet, but did you ever question why he did that? What is his point? Did Microsoft declare they invented the spreadsheet recently? Then he goes on to explain how Microsoft used it's business savvy to get a product out the door ahead of competition, but he frames it as a "bad" thing. If that's not a full fledged bias and Apple slant, I don't what is....and we all know he is so biased against Microsoft he can't post about any subject w/o throwing in a Microsoft insult. Part of his life now, sadly enough. He can't let it go. Glad I'm not one of his students, to be sure. I expect full objectivity and non-bias from teaching professionals. Anything less is well...unprofessional.
          • While I agree his post...

            was a bit off topic, nowhere did he say that any of this was "invented by Apple."
            That's what I was commenting on.

            As for Microsoft using "it's business savvy to get a product out the door ahead of
            competition," if you look into it further, I don't think "savvy" is the right word.
            "Unethical" perhaps.
    • VisiCalc, 123, Excel

      VisiCalc was indeed first, followed by Lotus 123 for the PC. Excel was first
      developed by Microsoft for the Mac and it took a while to take over on the PC side.
      All those entrenched bean counters using 123 would say, "you don't need a mouse
      to run a spread sheet!"

      But agree with the article, Numbers is a big move forward for spreadsheets and for
      the overall ability to quickly and slickly present number crunching ideas.

      Pages should be much better with the word-processor option as well. Something
      needs to be done about Word. It's a dinosaur. And if Pages isn't it, well good to
      see the attempt and competition anyway.
      Len Rooney
      • Microsoft's first spreadsheet...

        was Multiplan, which I believe evolved into Excel.
    • Um...

      I'm sorry but I've used Lotus 123 and seen Excel on Windows 2. There were some clear differences and improvements that were strictly attributable to Microsoft. The differences were about the same as what Apple is doing.

      It is true that they released competing products sooner, most of that was NOT due to withholding technical information but due to other companies being late to jump on the windows bandwagon. Everyone was in "wait and see" mode and then had scramble to catch up. This is what did in WordPerfect Corp. DBase. Ashton Tate.

      I am not saying that Microsoft did not withhold information but it wasn't anywhere near as big a factor as just delay. This probably had more of an effect on Borland.

      And Microsoft wasn't anywhere near as large at that point.

      I quit using WordPerfect 5.1 because I found the Word Gui easier to use. And after having used it for a while I suddenly realized that I wasn't ever writing macros in Word. I always was writing macros in WP. I suddenly realized I didn't feel the need anymore. Fundamentally both were wordprocessors but it was just easier to use Word.

      Same with Excel vs Lotus 123. Drop the VisiCalc thing. It was the initial idea but it really was Lotus 123 that took it from there and put the spreadsheet on the map. Microsoft quickly championed OLE so that you could embed graphics and charts within the sheet and also quickly created an automation interface so that excel could be automated externally. It had an add-in interface for extending it. It was integrated with Word so that you could drop sheets inside Word and edit them. This was Microsoft.
      • What you've forgotten..

        is the real reason everyone was late jumping on the Windows bandwagon.

        Microsoft had pronounced Windows to be a dead end, and that OS/2 was the way
        of the future. When Microsoft pulled out of their OS/2 partnership with IBM, Lotus
        and WordPerfect, who had put their efforts into OS/2 versions of 1-2-3 and
        WordPerfect, were stuck. Microsoft just happened to have been developing
        Windows software, while telling their competitors not to. So, despite telling
        everyone to develop for OS/2, Microsoft didn't. Hmm.

        Borland's problems were something else.
        • When did they say that?

          [i]Microsoft had pronounced Windows to be a dead end, and that OS/2 was the way of the future[/i]

          Can't really say I ever heard of that one, sounds a bit of an urban ledgend or a MacWorld "story". It really sounds as though it's another excuse, a way of saying "MS Office wasn't better: Their competitors where tricked into not making any themselves.

          This way those who dislike Microsoft don't have to acknoledge that MS Office actually [i]was/is[/i] better then the offerings of other companies.
          John Zern
          • 1989

            ((( Can't really say I ever heard of that one, sounds a bit
            of an urban ledgend or a MacWorld "story." )))

            Not an urban legend at all. I was selling IBM PCs at the
            time, so I remember it well. Follow the link, and you can
            hear Bill Gates saying "OS/2 is the way of the future!" Of
            course, Microsoft was busy working on Office for
            Windows at the time (first released for the PC in 1990).

          • I'm sorry but you can't expect

            anyone to use a slashdot link in the context of Microsoft/truth can you? <br><br>
            Let's make this simple. That was so long ago. If Microsoft really tricked everyone and got away with it. Why haven't we since seen anyone build an office product that completely eliminates the need for MS Office? Are you saying Microsoft and Windows had such a hold at that time, there was no bother trying to compete with Office? <br><br>
            Reading these posts you get the idea every anti-ms poster believes MS is all marketing with poor products. <br>
            With that in mind, i simply can't believe we haven't seen the killer Office application since that time. People can't be fooled from the obvious. If a new product is introduced that is vastly superior....that's key....Vastly superior, it's going to win the marketshare. Why has not not happened? Has Microsoft pulled off a string of perfectly and diabolically planned illusions and kept people from even finding out about a better and greater product? And which product is it you would be referring to that is this killer Office application? Not even windows dominance wins out here and back then it was nearly as much of a factor. Even if Microsoft pulled off these massive illusions, hiding the real good OSes and products the entire time (i still don't know which they were to be honest??) how could they have stopped vendors from writing a killer Office App for windows, that is vastly MS Office's superior? I simply have not seen this and don't believe that Microsoft was able to do all of the wizardry the anti-ms crowd suggests. I think it was more that Microsoft had the best platform for the widest possible audience. Wasn't that it?
          • Look up OS/2...

            in Wikipedia (not necessarily the best source), and follow some of the links to
            Ballmer calling OS/2 "Windows Plus," and this one, [u]http://pages.prodigy.net/
            michaln/history/pr/87apr_m3592.html[/u] which is a Microsoft press release
            which boldly states "New version of Microsoft Windows to provide bridge to MS OS/

            The IBM/Microsoft alliance fell apart in 1990, which, coincidentally, is when
            Microsoft Office for Windows first appeared. Since Lotus and WordPerfect were
            developing for OS/2, their dominance was ended when Microsoft dumped OS/2.

            Not legend, fact.
          • Let me give you that link..

            again, 'cause I messed it up:


            "MS OS/2 will be the platform upon which the next 1000 exciting personal
            computer applications software products are built." Bill Gates
          • Brush up on your history

            M$ was indeed originally developing OS/2 for IBM, then pulled out and went back to work on Windows, leaving IBM to release OS/2.
      • Excel Under Win 2.11

        Yep, Excel on the PC side was first released on Windows 2.11. I believe the correct way of describing it was it ran in a runtime of Windows 2.11 on top of DOS (not a programmer).

        I was a heavy Lotus 123 user and our company switched to Excel the week it came out for DOS. Took me a couple weeks to deal with all the macro differences, but I've loved it ever since.
  • PLEASE clarify

    What do you mean when you say, "Maybe the best part: I couldn?t find a pivot-table anywhere."

    I find Pivot Tables to be one of the most useful features of a spreadsheet. I have also found that almost nobody knows of their existence. However, this is the first time I can recall somebody who knows of their existence considering them a feature best omitted!
    • Pivot Tables--Best Not to Joke About Them

      It was meant as a joke. Not a very god one, I guess. :-)
      • Thanks

        I wasn't offended by the comment, but I was wondering if there was some real reason behind it. Like perhaps Numbers offered a better approach. But since it was meant as a joke, I'll drop the entire issue. Thanks for the response!
    • pivot tables in excel? Instead use

      Access! it does a much better job of it and with Access 2007 is much easier to get along with.