Taking on Excel, and Winning, Sort Of.

Taking on Excel, and Winning, Sort Of.

Summary: It’s common knowledge that, when trying to find a true market leader in mid-market enterprise software, the “other” category is by far the largest, despite the efforts of Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, Lawson, Infor, and pretty much any vendor with dreams of high volume sales to capture true market dominance.But a dominant position has already been established by the one vendor no one mentions in the surveys, mostly because that vendor’s products are so ubiquitous.


It’s common knowledge that, when trying to find a true market leader in mid-market enterprise software, the “other” category is by far the largest, despite the efforts of Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, Lawson, Infor, and pretty much any vendor with dreams of high volume sales to capture true market dominance.

But a dominant position has already been established by the one vendor no one mentions in the surveys, mostly because that vendor’s products are so ubiquitous. The vendor is Microsoft, the product Excel, and in categories from business intelligence to supply chain management to CRM, the number one mid-market product is that little old spreadsheet. Which makes job #1 of every other software vendor to unseat this extremely well-entrenched incumbent. Or at least co-opt it.

Indeed, in most cases it’s such an uphill battle that the best strategy is to co-opt Excel, rather than fight. So enterprise software products abound that include not just an Excel “workspace”, but click and drop integration with Excel spreadsheets that even non-techies can use (which is always a rather condescending comment, but, then again, this is world in which people proudly march around with “For Dummies” books that advertise their owner’s cognitive capabilities – or lack thereof – for all to see. Go figure.)

Recent visits with supply chain management vendors, like Demand Management Inc., on-demand warehouse management vendors like SmartTurn, on-demand CRM vendors like Zoho, and pretty much every vendor I’ve talked to this year show an awareness of the Excel factor in every deal. These vendors, and this is only a smidgeon of the vendors who fit this category, have realized that Excel is everywhere, and rather than trying to pry it from the users’ clutches, they’ve sought to embrace their main competitor, even as they arguably offer functionality – and a user experience – that, pardon the pun – excels over anything that Excel could offer.

These little vendors are hardly alone. SAP and Oracle both offer various forms of Excel integration, and SAP has plans to make the joint SAP/Microsoft Duet product more Excel-friendly. In fact, the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality is so well-established that Microsoft is pushing various forms of Excel integration, even in its Dynamics ERP product line. (This is more than just eating your own dog food – they’re sleeping in their own dog food too.)

How far will this Excel-fever go? I wouldn’t be surprised if someone came up with an Internet search interface to Excel, as well as a YouTube and Facebook interface. The product is so entrenched it would take a dose of mustard gas to get some of these users to quit.

So, like the floppy disk icon that never dies, the Excel spreadsheet lives on and on, despite advances in technology that should have buried it a long time ago. This ubiquity and staying power says volumes about what users want from enterprise software, and their continued votes in favor of a 20-plus year old user experience should give everyone who believes that the best technology deserves to win a deserved pause. Excel works well-enough for millions of users all day long, and learning to live with it is a strategy that everyone, from CEOs to managers to software developers, needs to keep in mind.

The more things change……

Topics: Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Software

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  • Pass the mustard gas and dog food please ...

    ... "even as they arguably offer functionality ? and a user experience - that excels over anything that Excel could offer."
    Such as? I'd like to see that argument ...
    ... for it seems to me there is an important lesson for M$ here in the longevity of EXCEL and to some extent VBA.

    In the end we are all 'dummies' of sorts, or rather in the final analysis we want to communicate a simple presentation of a topic, however complicated the underlying may be. A few words, a few diagrams and a few numbers will usually do the trick.

    One reason I'd say M$ are likely to continue enduring a hard time with Windows is that having released Win(95), Internet Explorer, audio, graphics, video processing and EXCEL ... what else is there left to do?

    The answer: speech processing and parallel processing. We're still waiting.

    Golfers like their 5 iron - it can be used for lots of different shots. EXCEL is the 5 iron of programs.

    I'm keeping a 5 iron in my bag :-)
    • I Was Thinking 7 Iron

      When I was a kid, my folks gave me a cut down 7 iron and a putter to follow them around the local 9-hole course with. By the time I was a teenager, I could hit a 7 Iron 200 yds, or a make a decent wedge shot with it. Same with Excel.

      Today I pulled 20,000 rows from an enterprise database deleted about half the columns, built a few pivot tables, and voila, a management report that nobody else could seem to figure out how to do.

      That said, spreadsheets are the most fragile applications with the least imaginable data integrity. But when spreadshhets are outlawed, only outlaws will have...the answers.
  • What advances in technology should have buried it?

    I mean yeah I wouldn't keep my company's general ledger in it because there are so many other good programs that do that well, and yeah you have FileMaker Pro for simple tables and all (though I would argue that it's far easier to format an Excel spreadsheet for viewing and printing than a FMP form), but what else is there that should have put Excel and its spreadsheet cousins out to pasture?

    And the best thing about Excel is you don't need four years worth of programming education to use it. It's so easy to use and get a final product, a [u]customized[/u] final product, one that meets your specifications, not what someone else thinks your needs are.
    Michael Kelly
    • In Full Agreement

      I was in the middle of creating an Excel spreadsheet for an electrical stress analysis on a satellite power supply when I took a break and saw this article. I totally agree with "what else is there that should have put Excel and its spreadsheet cousins out to pasture?" I do electrical and statistical analysis on spacecraft hardware and I know of no other program that has all the features of Excel. Excel is very powerful and I have yet to totally exploit all that it can do. Excel has all the math imbedded in it that I need. I can build block diagrams and graphs of what I am doing on numerous spreadsheets and link it all together so all I have to do is change one or two parameters and it instantly filters through all the linked sheets. For sure it can take a lot of time to build some complex analysis in Excel, but once it is built it is easily manipulated and it can be used for something else with only minor modifications. Then one can take all the spreadsheets and put them into MS Word and Powerpoint for documents and presentations. I don't care how old Excel is, it still rules.
    • Pasture-ized

      I'm with Michael - - I want to know what's out there that I SHOULD be using. I'm thigh deep in knowing my way around Excel, but only because I KNOW it will give me more or less everything I want for hacking my way through MOUNDS of what my customers want to know about their business.
      Tell me what I SHOULD be using, so I can give it a try!!!
      • depends on what your'e doing

        If you're using Excel for tasks that are highly specific to your business and your requirements, keep at it. But there's a lot of applications -- warehouse management, salesforce automation, accounting, etc. -- that do a better and more thorough job at their specific domains than Excel can do, unless you want to program the hell out of it and then maintain that custom spreadsheet. The bottom line is that there are benefits to using packaged software, depending on what you're trying to accomplish, and benefits to using Excel, for the same reasons.

    • MS Hari Kari

      Seems like MS is trying to bury Excel (and Office in general) with that misbegotten ribbon bar from hell. I haven't met a single person who finds ANY advantage in it. The point that it's not customizable runs counter to every gain the users have made over the years.

      So we can file this under "Purported Advances in Technology That Should Have Buried It"
    • I read this article to find out WHAT TECHNOLOGY should have buried Excel!?

      and he never explains it, just dances around the topic. Back to Journalism 101 dude!
  • Opening up the hood

    Perhaps its time for MS to expose the engine, then. There's some hints like the astonishing speed boost if you use formula techniques on Named Ranges (experiment with dropping the absolute $ to see what I mean, it uses data arrays and not just cells in a very APL-like manner, you're working directly in the namespace), and in the C-based := argument assignment in VBA.
    • They already did

      One of the unspoken strengths of Office is the applications can be *run* by other software. This is true of a lot of MS software beyond office as well. MapPoint and Visio are two apps that come to mind.

      From an Access app I routinely have the *program* use Excel to open a template, fill out the spreadsheet and save it to another file--automatically.

      It's already possible to use Excel's engine--from *any* application that supports COM--not just MS products.
      • So, You can store 2 million 512 byte records in Access?

        Better yet, How about opening 15, 2 million record database files, sort the data, remove the duplicate information, output the data to another work file and pulling existing production schedule records and recalculate the revised scheduled production dates for 85,000 inventory items. You get 20 minutes.
        • If your argument is scalability

          then yes, Excel/Office does not scale as well as enterprise databases. But that was never the purpose of Excel, Excel was meant to be a tool for the common user, someone with no programming skills, to get small but important tasks done quickly and efficiently and easily.
          Michael Kelly
  • Have you seen a wheel?

    Excel is a bit like the wheel, it was simply designed to meet a specific function in the first place and was fundamentally done well. The only thing MS can do is add a few frills around the edges from time to time. The benefit of a 'legacy' spreadsheet is file compatibility over a long period of time. I have seen the Open Office alternative and whilst it is quite good it still isn't quite as easy or functional as Excel.

    By the way, I am still using floppy disks and they have some power when systems get a bit wobbly.
  • RE: Taking on Excel, and Winning, Sort Of.

    Am I missing something? I read the article twice just to make sure.

    It's one thing to say that people sometime use Excel for purposes not inherently 'condoned', but it's pretty misleading to say "advances in technology ... should have buried it a long time ago."

    What technology has come along to render spreadsheets obsolete? Excel is a tool for creating tables - something that people interact with constantly. As long as people want to see data in tabular form, Excel will be around.

    Now on the other hand, one could make a case that Word should be looking over it's shoulder as there are any number of replacements for it.
  • Journalism, sigh.

    As asked above, what advancements, what technologies?

    This article sounds a lot like a Nancy Grace "breaking news" stating major developement in such and such case. Only to find that it comes down to a new rumor, a new search location and after an hour everything remains the same.

    So after 7 paragraphs and the breaking line "despite advances in technology that should have buried it a long time ago" we come down to finding out that there is nothing new.

    I hate it when jourlanists (or whatever they call themselves) like to hear themselves talk, type or whatever.

    Where's the beef?
  • RE: Taking on Excel, and Winning, Sort Of.

    There are a lot of uses for Excel but what I believe you are saying that for certain business applications such as crm, hr apps and Finacial apps and analysis a lot of people are using excel when there are applications out there that are specifically developed for these applications. I do not think you are saying that excel for use as a spreadsheet is replaced by these apps from Oracle and the others. (While some users do like Open Office instead of Excel, I fall into that camp 90% of the time.)
    Yes a lot of people are using spreadsheets as databases. I have developed prototypes using excel for what eventually became a database with a web front end. My users liked the excel version and wanted to just use it but Excel has so many limitations that using it this way for any type of large organization quickly hits excels limits.
    Excel is certainly flexable and a non-programmer can do nice things with it but if you know how to program and get deep into the depths of excel you can really do anything. Accessing the Windows API for instance or any dll installed and registered on a computer is possible, unweildy but possible. And I know why people like to do this, but really people, excell is NOT secure. Anyone who has any reason at all to be secure should only use excel sparingly if at all and the same goes for all of the MS Office and Open Office, any other 'Office' suite apps.
    Also applications built in office will alamost always have little to no quality assurance on the logic. Without QA are you going to justify using this application when you get an audit either internally or by a customer? We audit our suppliers all the time. Everything they do that can impact either the products they supply or the timeliness of their supply line gets audited. We do not like seeing people using macros in an office app with no QA on the app. (You may also be non-compliant to any regulator requirements you have if your apps are not QAed.)
    Any software we use has to be created by a skilled, trained developer with the proper documentation in place for them to do that job. Unless you are a programmer writing programs is not allowed under our QA processes. Granted in our case there is a bit more requirements for QA then most shops but your product chain is only as strong as it's weakest link.

    Hope this helps.
  • RE: Taking on Excel, and Winning, Sort Of.

    Readers of this article might be interested in the ultimate answer to 'if you cant beat em....' elsewhere on this site: http://blogs.zdnet.com/Berlind/?p=943
  • Master Joe Says...

    Thsi is one time I am in full disagreement with the entire topic of this article. I have been using Excel quite extensively a lot over the past few years, for complex mathematical calculations in my college Calculus, to my current position as a Financial Systems Analyst, to creating a flat database for tracking or storing of records. The fact that Excel has been around for over a decade does not mean it is outdated. There are more features added with each new installment, and the newest features of any spreadsheet application are all there. To be honest, I have used other applications, such as the spreadsheet tool in openOffice, and I keep coming back to Excel. It is easy to use, easy to learn, easy to understand, and easy to cooperate with. What mor edo you want?

    --Master Joe
    • Simulation and Optimization

      We launched Crystal Ball for Excel on the Mac in the late 80's because we didn't like the limitation of using just one number in each cell. Often in financial analysis, the variable being estimated should be represetned by a probability distribution. Combining Excel's business logic with probability distributions has been a powerful addition to the serious Excel modeler's toolkit.

      In the late 90's we added the concept of decsion variables and optimization to the simulations we had been doing in Excel. This really maxes out Excel's horsepower, yet creates even more useful applications in the areas of portfolio allocations or anywhere there is a trade off in a business decision.

      We have lots of examples and free trials at www.crystalball.com.

      "The views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle."
  • RE: Where does the data come from anyway?

    I don't know about your work, haven't been there. In my work data is stored in databases on the server(s). Excel can pull simple data into it's format for use, but the complex data just won't populate correctly without some programming assistance. Then comes in COGNOS, CRYSTAL and other database to excel looking format programs. They in most cases take the very complex data and make a tabular format report that looks like excel. With a option checked most will output to an excel format. Report Writer software is the start of BI.
    It many not be of general understanding but having all data time stamped in real time help assure the data in multiple reports were constant across the whole report. IS This web site is for computer professionals? OR Computer USERS? From the responses I read mostly USERS!

    It is time to move forward and end the hour after hour of data entry and Manipulation so many are guilty of. What a production loss.