Spreadsheets are indispensable.


Last week I spent a considerable amount of time searching for some free software. The task at hand was fairly straightforward – store about 10 data items, and allow me to easily add,maintain and extract or report when necessary.

The criteria – apart from functionality – was straightforward; a
free online service (with limited functionality or ad-supported) or an
open source equivalent that I could easily plug on top of a LAMP stack.
Pretty quickly I had about 5 candidates lined up, and the evaluation
could begin.
It was evident from an early stage that my expectations of being
able to complete a relatively simple set of tasks would not be met.
This need for simplicity in software – espoused with almost religious
fervour by design houses like 37Signals – DOES make huge sense to any
user that has a day in-day out work process which currently resides in
a) their head b) on a post-it note stuck to the bottom of their coffee
cup or c) in <generic> desktop productivity suite – but which they wish
could be solved in a simple application.
So this was my starting point last week; about 6 rolled up hours
later I gave up; the solutions were too complex; Even with some of the
configuration potential offered by the open source options, the effort
involved was not worth the effort involved. I needed to reconsider my
So yes – it was inevitable – I’m using a spreadsheet for a task
that I swore must not use a spreadsheet.

Then last night, I listened to some of the recently described "crazy uncles" over on the Gillmor Gang – an old podcast from
february 2007
, with Dan Bricklin* the creator of the first spreadsheet – Visicalc.
This seminal moment for the PC was chronicled nicely in Cringelys book
Accidental Empires

Bricklins latest endeavour is WikiCalc which he describes as "a web authoring tool for pages that include data that is more than just unformatted prose." Nice.

The more I listened to him in this podcast (the conversation about
spreadsheets starts about 30 mins in) the more it realised the view
that the spreadsheet, along with email, is a fundamental tool that any
office worker must use; terms like "swiss army knife" and "multi
purpose tool" were used.

Even better was his comment on the fact that
probably any office worker can use a spreadsheet, but what about any
office worker editing a web page; I gather this is a key argument for
WikiCalc – empower appropriate web publication though the tools that
the office masses are familiar with.

Regardless of whether you’re a rows and columns drone, this podcast is worth a listen.

*Dan Bricklin is not a crazy uncle.

[Update] : There is another Cringely interview with Bricklin at NerdTV – though audio quality is really poor.


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