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Why some companies are ditching their spreadsheets

By Sandra Gittlen
January 19, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Microsoft responds

User frustration with Excel has not gone unnoticed at Microsoft, according to Albert Chew, the company's senior product manager for Excel. Chew says some of the issues described in this article have been addressed in Microsoft Office 2010.

"We've focused in on three key areas with this new version of Excel: business intelligence, high-performance computing and collaboration," he says. He believes customers will be happy with the faster calculations for complex models, the features that help analyze data for business intelligence and, perhaps most important, the ability to co-author spreadsheets and share them in real time.

Microsoft offers several alternatives for users to gain the centralization, collaboration, real-time viewing and version control they crave. One of their options is to use SharePoint. With SharePoint, multiple users can take a file offline from a central repository, and when they load it back to SharePoint, authorized users are notified of changes and have the opportunity to resolve and approve conflicts.

Spreadsheet woes

This helps ensure version control and accuracy, Chew says. He adds that users can employ Microsoft OneNote to consolidate supporting documents, e-mail messages, images and other media and manage and store them as a unified whole.

Another option is for users to post Excel spreadsheets to the Microsoft Windows Live Sky Drive, an online storage service that is accessible to all authorized internal and external users. Though this option allows for light editing, there is no version control available, Chew acknowledges.

Finally, companies can subscribe to Office 365, Microsoft's new cloud-based service, to get the feel of Office as an online service. Office 365 costs between $2 and $27 per user per month based on application usage, storage needs and other factors. Companies can create teams to view, share and perform minor edits on files via the browser. There are also integrated instant messaging and videoconferencing features to aid collaboration.

Chew admits that Microsoft still has some work to do in making the public aware that these much-wanted features are actually available today. In fact, the company is offering free Office 2010 training for users and IT teams to help people get familiar with the product, which was released last June, he says.

"We know there are companies that never upgraded to Office 2007 and are still using Office 2003. We want to make them aware of the innovations we've made in collaboration and real-time authoring," he says. He adds that Microsoft is also working closely with partners such as Reuters to provide smoother access to real-time data feeds and other critical add-ons.

No huge migration -- yet

Melissa Webster, an analyst at research firm IDC, has studied the potential for erosion in Microsoft's market share as upstarts hit the market, and she says that for the immediate future, Microsoft will remain the leader.

"I would agree that Excel has been used by many companies as a basic tool... where a purpose-built tool would have been better," she says. But there is an upside for Microsoft: Because Excel is already on a large majority of enterprise desktops and laptops, many companies don't need new licenses for it and, therefore, Excel may cost less than its counterparts, Webster says. "Microsoft Office continues to be widely used by 97% or so of companies we survey each year, and survey respondents indicate they are continuing to upgrade to new versions," she says.

In other words, there are no additional fees to continue using Excel because it's part of Office and users are upgrading to new versions of Office anyway, Webster explains. Turning to alternative products would likely involve paying new fees.

But don't count out the growing list of upstarts offering tools that can handle various spreadsheet tasks. "We are not at the generation that would be ready to abandon spreadsheets yet," Ventana Research's Kugel says. But he adds it may not be too long before that happens -- and forward-thinking IT shops might want to start exploring their options.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology writer in the Boston area. Contact her at sgittlen@verizon.net.

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