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SocialCalc: a killer app?

David Greenfield details SocialCalc, the wikified spreadsheet from SocialText. While David's assessment is comprehensive, I partially disagree with his analysis that: ...
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Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor on

David Greenfield details SocialCalc, the wikified spreadsheet from SocialText. While David's assessment is comprehensive, I partially disagree with his analysis that:

 ...SocialCalc will have a long way to go. Today there’s no Excel integration, something that Google Sheets already offers. What’s more the range of functions provided with SocialCalc is still limited. Excel offers some 333 functions. Google Sheet has 263, 230 that it shares in common with Excel. SocialCalc only has 107 functions.

SocialCalc should have a means of importing/exporting direct to Excel, Google (I'd add Zoho into the mix), but it's not necessary for SocialCalc to match Excel or Google in the number of functions it has. I'd argue that to do so would be taking the eye off the development ball. In my view it is much more important for SocialText to look at developing templates for specific applications.

The immediate examples I have in mind are for the production of accounts reporting as an alternative to existing systems and for M&A work. Most accounts production systems sit in siloes and cannot be shared. Since SocialCalc is inherently shareable, it offers significant opportunities for collaboration between customers and professionals. It should also allow for greater efficiencies in the production process, especially if SocialCalc can be made to include conditional text that is dependent on the data held in specific cells. An example might be: 'If the value in cell A101 is greater than zero, then include text from wikipage123, if not then include text from wikipage124.' (Update: Ross Mayfield tells me this capability exists in SocialCalc.)

When tied to forecasting templates, SocialCalc avoids the unnecessary data duplication that normally arises using accounts as the basis for developing forward forecasts. That should eliminate the potential for spreadsheet error I have described before. I discussed these thoughts with some of my professional colleagues and while they find it difficult imagining moving away from Excel, they recognize there is genuine value in this approach. Philip Woodgate said:

I can't see alternative spreadsheets replacing Excel at this stage (it is both more powerful and polished), but I can see alternatives complimenting Excel.  An online shareable spreadsheet that is freely available, reasonably powerful, easy to use, tracks changes and importantly has a joining process that is quick and comfortable for business users has value to me.

Simon Hurst added:

Given the extent to which most spreadsheets re-invent stuff that's been done hundreds of times before, will the approach lead to more re-usable and shareable 'building-blocks' of spreadsheet functionality? If so, this could be of great benefit in improving spreadsheet reliability.

Taking a different tack, Ingrid Whitehead gets to the immediate potential benefits: "I have worked on projects that have involved sending around version upon version of spreadsheet to the project team / client / etc..  each version with just one or two changes.  This (traditional!) approach is very traffic and time intensive and also has high risk potential with a number of different versions flying around.  SocialCalc could be the answer."

I spoke with Ross Mayfield, president of SocialText and a fellow Irregular about these scenarios. He says: "The best way for people to understand how SocialCalc can be useful is for them to see it in action. The M&A department of one customer is beta testing to assess how they might reduce reliance on stand alone spreadsheets. Early testing suggests a high level of acceptance. I must stress this is early days. Developing templates with the help of domain experts is something we are exploring."

Does this add up to a killer application? I can't be sure, but given the collaborative capabilities tied to solving problems outlined by others, I sense that SocialText is onto something interesting. Provided SocialCalc offers sufficient benefit for companies to rethink the value they derive from existing methods of operation, then it should do very well.

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