Excel in my opinion is the most successful software application in history. The spreadsheet is the most powerful computing interface. The predecessor’s name might explain why it has been so successful: VisiCalc, short for “Visual Calculator”, everyone’s (almost) infinitely extensible visual calculation program interface.
The list of applications that have attempted to chip away at Excel could fill up every row and column in a spreadsheet. So many companies claim their biggest competitor is an excel spreadsheet. You can build a project management tool, todo list, pipeline, CRM, calendar, ERP, applicant tracking system, business intelligence dashboards, financial reporting, lightweight databases, order tracking tool, bug tracker, agile sprints, sort and manipulate any set of data. The list goes on…
To understand what makes a spreadsheet so valuable, we need to understand how users can interact with programs. All user actions in a program can be boiled down to 4 operations: CRUD. Create, Read, Update, and Delete. A user can perform these operations on a “unit(s) of data”. I am writing this blog post. You are reading this blog post. I can also update and delete this blog post. You write a tweet. Others read it on their feed. Everything you do can be explained by those four operations
A spreadsheet is then the simplest, most organically natural way of organizing discrete units of information, the easiest way to perform CRUD operations on any type of data. Every app to come after has been an adaptation of the grid display of data to suit some specific task or application, hiding or highlighting info. The spreadsheet is the foundation.
So what about Excel 2.0? Google Sheets was a massive improvement in collaboration, but it’s essentially the same application, there wasn’t any innovation on the computing model. And while I love Monday.com, for managing projects, it doesn’t do it all, and Smartsheet is also an incredibly powerful application, but like Google Sheets, it hasn’t innovated the model at all, still a grid based visual data model.
Is there a better visual data model than a grid of cells?
Another option is command line based programs, like using wolfram alpha, or a TI-84 calculator that shows the recent commands. But the data isn’t persistent enough, we only get recent commands, and the location is always moving and we can’t easily reference older calculations. That’s why no regular consumer uses the command line, they use their GUI.
Hybrid “smart whiteboard” apps like Notion or Coda are starting to gain popularity that blend a word processor with a spreadsheet where the cells are needed. But that’s not inherently more simple or elegant, it’s just a slick combination of two popular visual data models, word processors and spreadsheets.
Honestly I’m not sure there is a simple but more elegant, powerful data model… I sort of wrote this post to see if I could come up with one during the writing of it, and I’m still struggling. I do know that if one could in theory create one, it would be incredibly valuable and likely insanely useful. It’s been 40 years since the original Visicalc spreadsheet program was released, and no one has been able to beat them. Yet…