Spreadsheets have been the bane of BI professionals and vendors for years. If you take 1) a business user who wants to get his job done, 2) inexpensive spreadsheet software, and 3) multiply by a factor of [number of business analysts and executives], the result is often chaos - not for the end user, mind you, but for the business, which often throws up its hands trying to figure out which of the 12 spreadsheets labeled "Q4 Revenue" is correct. This is one of the main reasons that BI vendors have done so well selling their wares - they point out that they offer a single version of the truth - not an insignificant benefit for a large and complex corporation.

Nevertheless, employees continue to use spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel for two main reasons: they don't need to get IT involved if they want to crunch some numbers, and the user interface is straightforward and easy to use. After ranting about Excel for years, some BI vendors finally made an uneasy truce with it several years ago. For example, both Business Objects and SAS can now pump data into Excel from their server-based repositories. Users get the interface they like, and the corporation gets the data consistency it needs.

Well, this era of spreadsheet peaceful coexistence is drawing to a close. Rather than an uneasy truce, the two extremes - war and peace - are breaking out. Microsoft is working hard to ease the tensions and end the war, while Google is tossing a bomb into the fray. Put another way, over the next six months Microsoft's spreadsheets will become a peace offering to IT, while Google's may make IT declare war on Google.

Microsoft, the Peacenik

Microsoft's revamp of Excel within the Office 2007 suite (formerly code-named Office 12) is significant. First, the software supports 1 million rows (rather than 64,000) and more than 16,000 columns (rather than 256). Second, Microsoft has revamped the user interface. Rather than clicking on entries in the menu system to perform actions, users click on something called "the ribbon," a visual toolbar on steroids. At any point in time, the ribbon morphs to show only relevant commands. If the user is working on a graph, it shows graphing commands and hides irrelevant items such as formula actions.

Finally, Microsoft has built the ability to share the spreadsheet with others right into the program. "Share" is a selection, similar to "Save" and "Save As..." Share places the spreadsheet on an Office SharePoint Server so that other workers with the appropriate permissions can access the spreadsheet as well. Office SharePoint Server Excel Services enable employees to view and edit that spreadsheet through a Web browser. All of a sudden, workers don't need to email spreadsheets around the office - they can all work on the same spreadsheet.

Google, the Warmonger

Google also lets users work on the same spreadsheet over the Web. The difference is the spreadsheet resides on Google's servers - not behind the corporate firewall.

On June 6, Google Labs announced the availability of Google Spreadsheets, noting, "Google Spreadsheets is a free, secure service that enables users to quickly and easily create, store and share basic spreadsheets on the Web." Users can upload spreadsheets they already have using .XLS (Excel) or .CSV (comma-delimited) file formats. They control who can view and access their spreadsheets by sending out invitations via email. The service fosters collaboration - it limits the number of concurrent users to 10 - by including a chat feature and the ability to update its data in real time. If one user changes a number, the other users see the change several seconds later.

This service, as Google notes, is not quite ready for primetime, which is why the company released it under the Google Labs moniker. For at least several days after its release, the service would often degrade, suddenly disconnecting, or letting users view the spreadsheet but not edit it. Also, while the service supports formulas, it is not as formula-rich as Excel.

To be fair, Google is not pitching Google Spreadsheets for business use. Examples they give are consumer-oriented, such as helping volunteer coaches manage the roster of their kids' baseball team. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that some workers will decide to use Google Spreadsheet for corporate projects.

Others Are Joining the Fray

Microsoft and Google are not the only companies changing the functionality of the spreadsheet as we know it. JotSpot lets users copy and paste a spreadsheet as interactive wiki page. Thinkfree offers a Microsoft Office-compatible suite (documents, spreadsheets and presentations) as an online service. Smallthought Systems' Dabble DB lets users enter data into a communal spreadsheet of sorts, but then lets each person view only the data he or she is interested in.

Get Ready for Some Fallout

What are the issues here? First, all of these technologies are pushing collaboration. Once your users are exposed to these products, they'll consider just reporting the numbers to be a pretty mundane capability. So brace yourself for user requests for more collaborative functionality.

Second, all of these vendors, with the exception of Microsoft, store the spreadsheets outside the firewall. Just mention that fact to your compliance officer or internal auditor and watch them launch off into space. This is a major records management issue. If you are using these spreadsheets to conduct corporate business and you receive a subpoena, it's not acceptable to tell the court, "Oh, that spreadsheet was on Google and we deleted it," or "Oh, that spreadsheet was on JotSpot. We stopped paying for the service, and we can't access it any more."

In summary, spreadsheets are changing. They're fostering collaboration and are accessible by the Web, while at the same time, in some cases, putting corporate data at risk. Pay attention to these changes - the uneasy spreadsheet truce is over.

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