The future for Excel (Part II)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

In our recent 'Has Excel's time come' feature we looked at Excel's place in the evolving digital landscape and reviewed some of the alternatives. Here in Part II we examine the future for Excel and invite leading experts to share their thoughts.


We went out and talked to some of the keenest users of Excel we could find. What was came back was interesting. All were aware of alternatives that will solve the same kinds of problems Excel solves. None saw the alternatives as being anywhere near a threat. Excel is totally ingrained in our work practices.

Everyone we spoke to could very quickly come up with some ideas regarding how Microsoft could improve the product. This despite the fact that it's hard to see much real change in the product's functionality for most of the last ten years. It seems that for the moment Microsoft might have accepted the product as mature and given up on developing Excel further. Instead we see Microsoft concentrating on defending its existing position by making sure Excel is used as widely as possible. With none of our commentators seeing that Excel could shortly be knocked off its perch, the strategy seems to be working. Is it a strategy that Microsoft needs to change over the longer term though? Where's the real product development for Excel? We're not seeing the product itself improve right now.

The academic's perspective

We questioned Marwa Hammam, Executive Director of the Master of Finance programme at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School: “What are your students using as alternatives to Excel?”.

It turns out that “Not much” is the answer. Some students on some programmes make heavy use of specialist software packages for running statistics.

“Can you imagine a world without Excel?” we asked

“No”. Marwa sees Excel as ingrained. It’s got so much flexibility and so many alternative uses. From creating a simple database for something like customer relationship management, to filling in expense claims, running surveys and presenting numbers in tables or charts. That in part, explains why Excel is so dominant. It’s hard to see it dying out.

“Excel is a lifeline for people on our course”.

"Where could Microsoft take Excel next?" we asked. Marwa has noticed that Excel is offering a lot more templates than it used to. Perhaps these will end up broadening out. Perhaps we'll end up seeing versions of Excel which are tailored to particular jobs within professions like medicine. Perhaps we'll see an even simpler version of Excel emerging, making the product even more attractive to first (e.g. school) users.


Big data's perspective

If you work for a big company, chances are that your accounts and internal management information is stored in a massive database. There’s a lot of information floating around your organisation after all, too much to be stored on spreadsheets.

With the rise of the “Enterprise Resource Planning” (ERP) software that specialises in handling organisation-wide data there must be a chance that your spreadsheets will all become obsolete.

We spoke to Chris Newdick who works for SAP, one of the world’s largest suppliers of ERP systems. In a few quick minutes Chris gave us a demonstration of how SAP is designed to interface with Excel.

It’s clear to us that Chris sees Excel and SAP complementing each other. Excel has an in-built flexibility and is already widely used by his clients, but it’s just not designed for handling the enormous amounts of data any decent sized organisation generates. Chris sees Excel and SAP continuing to work together. Chris can’t see Excel disappearing any time soon.

We asked Chris: "What could Microsoft do with Excel next?" Chris would love Microsoft to solve the challenge of making Excel's initial user interface simpler. Most users use a fraction of Excel's full functionality. Making the product look simple for the majority of users would be a step forward. The last thing it needs right now is more options/ capabilities - very few users would see an advantage there.


The super-user's perspective

We spoke to members of the Excel modelling team at consultancy Deloitte. Partner Martyn Sullivan heads a team of people solving other people’s trickiest Excel problems. Between them there can’t be too much the team hasn’t seen before in Excel. Given that the team’s future is tied to Excel you might expect them to be on the look out for technologies that are going to sneak up and dent their livelihood. They’re just not seeing that alternatives to Excel have any power yet though.

“You know the Qwerty keyboard” said Charles Lamb, one of the key members of Deloitte's Excel modelling team.

“Yes, of course”.

“Do you see the Qwerty keyboard disappearing any time soon?” asked Charles.

We could see what Charles was saying. There are some alternative keyboard layouts out there. You can dictate into your computer if you really want to. The Qwerty keyboard may not seem perfect and theoretically it could be replaced but it’s been around for a long time. It’s very strongly embedded with users. Like a world without the Qwerty keyboard it's hard to imagine life without Excel now.

Not surprisingly, for a group of people that spends all day working with Excel, the team has some clear ideas about what Microsoft could do to improve the product from here. Fixing some of the existing bugs would be a start. Getting rid of the animated interface in the newer versions would be an improvement (the animations that make numbers jump about a bit in front of your eyes and just slow things down). The team could also see Microsoft taking Excel down the database route which might appeal to certain specialist users. Making the product more accessible to a novice user would be an improvement, as would a product where multiple users can really work on the same spreadsheet at the same time without causing any file conflicts (perhaps by allowing individual users to lock parts of a spreadsheet while they are working there).

It seems that Excel's existing users have plenty of ideas about how Microsoft could take the initiative to make this (great) product even better!

Read Part I of this feature here.

About the author: training company

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