The Weekly Round-Up: When spreadsheets go bad

Be afraid, be very afraid...
Written by The Round-Up, Contributor

Be afraid, be very afraid...


The very word is enough to strike fear into the heart of seasoned business folk.

While the VisiCalc spreadsheet was the killer app for early Apple computers in the 1970s and 1980s and helped launch the desktop revolution, today's modern number cruncher is a complex and dangerous beast, filled with ambiguity and genuine peril.

That's right, the Round-Up's talking about... when spreadsheets go bad. Dun! Dun! DURRH!

According to a survey out this week from a company called EASA, mistakes in spreadsheet formulas have been responsible for sending several businesses' financial results askew.

The report also claims that research independently published by Butler, Coopers & Lybrand, KPMG and others found that between 86 per cent and 100 per cent of financial spreadsheets they analysed had major errors that could seriously affect management decisions based on the results of the complex spreadsheets.

Yep, large spreadsheets are packing multiple erroneous entries and more holes than a particularly flavoursome Emmental.

So what's the answer to these wayward spreadsheets? Accept that technology is not the solution, that software aimed at eliminating errors from error-strewn software will inevitably contain errors itself?

Of course not: the truth is that businessmen and businesswomen should return to more primal tools.

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Last Friday a small hand-picked contingent of the world's technology press convened on a small theatre in Apple's HQ to hear Steve Jobs announce how sorry he was about the problems with the iPhone 4's reception.

They waited with bated breath to see whether the CEO of the world's biggest technology company would announce a massive product recall.

Not a bit of it. Instead, what the assembled press got was a number of videos demonstrating how bad the reception of other smartphones is, a quick tour of the facilities and a truckload of coloured rubber bands.

The growing furore over the iPhone 4's attenuation problems was dealt with swiftly and decisively. Yes, the iPhone 4 has a problem but all phones have the same problem - we simply hadn't noticed.

Jobs explained patiently that people really love the iPhone 4, Apple can't make enough of them and nobody's complaining or taking them back to the store. All of this nonsense about attenuation was blown out of proportion, claimed the Apple head honcho.

He also put paid to any suspicion that Apple had skimped on testing by showing pictures of its $100m phone-testing facilities. So impressive were anechoic chambers used to test the reception of the iPhone you could easily imagine them being rejected as sets for X-Men movies for being too fanciful.

You can see all the pictures from Steve Jobs' presentation here.

And we're sticking with Apple for the Round-Up's closing bit.

(The Round-Up apologises in advance if you're eating at the moment. You may want to put your sandwich down for a bit.)

An Australian company has felt the wrath of Apple's legal team over one of its products.

Nothing unusual so far, eh? After all, Apple is famously protective over its technology and industrial design as many organisations have discovered to their chagrin.

But the Apple-annoying Aussie bunch in question, Sea to Summit, are not a technology company: they are in fact a camping equipment manufacturer based in Perth.

Sea to Summit has spent two years developing a small aluminium spade designed for campers to dig holes and get rid of, ahem, human waste.

The Round-Up struggled to understand the problem. It went back to Apple's product pages and scanned for a similar offering but to no avail.

Only then did it notice what Sea to Summit had called the little trowel - the iPood.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the company's general manager Rob McSporran said the company registered the iPood as a trademark in Australia in October 2006.

"We identified that there was a hole in the market for a sturdy poo trowel. Many cheap ones on the market are plastic and break easily and people end up leaving bits of plastic all over the place," he told the paper.

As well as other things, the Round-Up imagines.

McSporran added: "The purpose of the product is to help people be responsible, to educate people, but talking about burying your poo tends to turn people off so we had a bit of fun [with the name]."

The iPood was sold for seven months before Apple's lawyers stepped in, ordering the Perth firm to abandon its trademark registration and change the name once its current inventory was depleted.

In a letter to the company, and without any apparent irony, Apple's lawyers are reported to have written: "Sea to Summit iPood is clearly similar to Apple's iPod, there being merely a single letter difference."

It added: "For obvious reasons, Apple's reputation for clean design and high-tech electronics will suffer should it be associated with latrines and the like through Sea to Summit's use of iPood."

Rather than launch a legal battle against Apple, McSporran decided to bow to the company's request saying: "We have changed the name to Pocket Trowel, which is a bit boring."

Apple? No sense of humour? That's one big pile of crap.

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