While reading a comment to an entry on Tim Bray's blog a ran across a link to a product called Quantrix Modeler
and it struck me just how old fashioned Excel is. I'm old enough to have actually tinkered with VisiCalc on an Apple //e. VisiCalc, as in The First Spreadsheet Software. Until tonight I would have said that Excel, OO.org Calc, and Quattro Pro were much more advanced products than VisiCalc was. However, if you went back to the early 80's in your time traveling phone booth and grabbed someone who worked with VisiCalc and put a computer in front of them running one of today's spreadsheets, they wouldn't need much retraining.
The spreadsheet software you find in current office suites is still pretty much a series of numbered rows and letter labeled columns. In fact the only thing I can recall ever stumbling over during the years was switching between how to signify a range (A1..B2 vs. A1:B2). What impressed me when I viewed the product tour on the Quantrix web site was that they did away with this. The initial blank worksheet was a one column, one row, one cell sheet. Only instead of fixating on rows and columns they were referred to as categories. They start as A and B, but you start by giving them meaningful names. So in the tour they name one Quarter and the other Type and label the first Quarter column Q1 and the first Type row Sedan. So that one single cell isn't A1 or B2, but Quarter 1 Sedan. That was only the first of two things that impressed me. The other is probably easier to see in the video than explain in words. It was kind of like Excel's pivot table feature, but built in as a core feature rather than bolted on.
If you do much of any work at all with spreadsheets I suggest going to the site and viewing the tour. I suspect like me you'll find yourself thinking that Excel, Calc, and Quatro Pro may be complex, but it's hard to say they are much more advanced that the old spreadsheets. Okay, so they've got built in software for drawing charts, and a good many more built in mathematical functions, but can you put together a sales projection for four types of cars in three regions quarterly across three years using only four formulas?
The downside is that even the cheap version of Quantrix is over $300. I predict two things. First, assuming there isn't one that I just haven't heard of yet, at some point an open source version is going to show up and get the kind of attention Open Office is getting now. Second, at some point Microsoft will either replace Excel with something that is similar (probably keeping the Excel name) or introduce something like it without replacing Excel. Funny thing is, the Quantrix people pretty much brag about aiming for the professional financial analyst market. Even making a comment about how it doesn't make sense to try to have a one size fits all solution for balancing family budgets and guiding multinational corporations. Yet if Microsoft introduces something similar I suspect they'll target it at small businesses and the 'homeowner' market. "Big huge spreadsheets are for accountants and mathematicians. You don't have time for that. Use new MS UberSheet it works with you not against you." Probably complete with cute little illustrations of paper worksheets with household budgets pointing out how, "You don't use A1 and B5 here, why should you have to do so on the computer?"