Has Excel's time come? (Part I)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

In Part I of our 'Has Excel's time come' feature we look at Excel's place in the evolving digital landscape and review some of the alternatives. Look out for Part II where we look at the future for Excel and invite leading experts to share their thoughts.


Hands up if you remember fax machines? Do you remember going to conferences and having to check to see whether your name was pinned up on the message board? What about the day when your company first issued you with a (probably Nokia) mobile phone that was actually a phone, and would happily live on its battery for two weeks? Do you remember when you didn’t feel obliged to (in fact you couldn’t) check your emails on holiday?

Even when emails started following us around the head of your organisation’s IT department must have had a simple life. All they needed to do was make sure each staff member had a whizzy mobile phone and a licence for everyday Microsoft office products.

But now we’re living in a world of sophisticated smart phones and tablets, where companies have started to allow staff to bring their own choice of device to work. Everyone wants to be able to bat emails around but not everyone needs to do serious number crunching. If you’re a modern worker running around everywhere with a tablet or smart phone in your pocket do you really need Excel at all?

Alternatives to Excel

As well as Excel we’ve now got products that justify their existence by doing a great job at specialist tasks such as statistical analysis or storing and manipulating internal management data. Then we’ve got free direct alternatives to Excel such as Google’s sheets or Apache’s Open Office “Calc” spreadsheeting package. We've also got free spreadsheeting software "apps" you can download for your tablet or phone. None have the depth of functionality or are as widely used as Excel but perhaps they're good enough or at least a sign that Excel’s time has come.

Microsoft defends itself

We can definitely see Microsoft responding to a potential threat. We can see the company making more of Excel available more cheaply than ever before, making certain as many people as possible are used to using its product. If you’re just using Excel at work you may not be not be aware that:

  • Direct from Microsoft you can buy five licences for all office products (including the "Outlook" email package) for around £80 per year for use on all computers for all the users in your home. Those products mean that up to five of your home computers will routinely and automatically update to the very latest versions of Microsoft's Office software, all for a total of £80 per year. In years past you might have expected to pay hundreds for one licence for products that you expected would go out of date in a couple of years. That's looking like a massive price reduction for home users.
  • Microsoft offers very cheap pricing to educational organisations. Chances are the kids at your local state primary schools have newer versions of Microsoft Office than your work place has. Microsoft must be interested in kids for exactly the same kind of reason the drug dealers are: they would love to get them hooked.
  • Even if you don’t have Excel installed, if someone sends you a spreadsheet you can still view it and do some limited work with it over the internet using Microsoft’s free “Excel web app”. Similarly, if you want to look at a spreadsheet on your smart phone, Microsoft happily supplies its own free phone app that allows you to do that. Try and do some serious work with the spreadsheet though and you’ll soon find that you’re going to need the full paid-for version.
  • All of this must be Microsoft maintaining the largest possible userbase for its most lucrative Excel market: the user licences that large commercial organisations feel obliged to purchase.

A strategy that works: distributing more of Excel for peanuts, but little other product development

Although we can see plenty of investment being made by Microsoft in maintaining Excel’s reach we can see little other investment in this mature and usually more-than-adequate product. Can anyone tell us what extra Excel functionality they’re now enjoying as they’ve travelled from version 2007 to 2010 to 2013 and what they're looking forward to as they move on to the recently released 2016? No? We thought not. But during this same period Microsoft appears to have invested heavily in making sure elements of Excel are distributed widely and for free.

So far the strategy seems to be working. We spoke to a senior IT senior manager who had recently taken the organisation through the process of upgrading. “The first thing we needed to know from the finance department was how many Excel licences they needed”. As well as some kind of smart device, everyone in the company wants a desk top computer and the software they need to do serious work every now and then.

Excel is embedded in modern work practices, but not changing greatly

What we are seeing is Excel becoming more widely available than ever before (in your schools, on your phone, over the web if you don't happen to have a licence on one of your many machines) but the product itself isn’t changing much, perhaps because it’s already so good. This despite the fact that all the users we spoke to could very quickly come up with ideas for improving Excel ("Simplify the design of the product for new users" seemed to come up every time). Meanwhile, in the absence of 'real' development of this already-great product, Microsoft's strategy to distribute more of Excel for peanuts seems to be adequately heading off the threat of superficially similar free products from the likes of Google and Open Office.

The concensus coming back from our samping of Excel users is resoundingly clear: Excel is absolutely embedded in modern work practices. Right now it’s very hard to see that changing. Excel has been a blockbuster product for Microsoft for a long time already and it looks like it’s going to stay that way for at least as long again. Around the edges Microsoft has been forced to increase the availability of its product and reduce pricing to some users. But none of us are seeing real product development. None of us are finding ourselves falling in love with Excel all over again as Microsoft rolls out its newer versions. You can question whether that's a winning long term strategy (can you make a great product greater?). Nevertheless, it seems that Excel is so ingrained in what we do that, despite the emergence of free products that do some similar things, Excel will be with us for a long time yet.

Read Part II of this feature here.

About the author: training company financialtrainingassociates.com

Financial Training Associates Ltd is a provider of Excel financial modelling course training and other related programmes for accountants and finance professionals.