The end of MS Excel and Access?

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This post contains some of my thoughts on the way things are going in terms of the standard analytical software that most organisations use day-to-day – spreadsheets and simple databases. It describes how online functionality is influencing software offerings, and what we might expect to see in the future.

The vast majority of my clients use Microsoft Office for in-house analytical tasks. Excel is by far the most commonly used spreadsheet, and although far fewer people use Access, it is still the most accessible small database suite for novice users; without the cost and training implications of something like Oracle or SQL Server.

In recent years, Microsoft (MS) has had to respond to the challenge of Google. Google provide businesses with their online versions of office products for a minimal fee – Google Docs, Sheets and Forms. These products do not have the power and functionality of the desktop versions of MS Office, but do offer online storage and collaboration. This allows service providers, clients and third parties to all work together on documents from all over the world, at any time.

Microsoft’s response to this has been Office 365, which is essentially the desktop version of Office with an online version included. As with Google’s software, the online version does not currently offer the power and features of the desktop versions of Excel and Access. In particular, there is no support for programmatic control with Visual Basic (VBA) language, and the online version of Access is severely limited, with only simple forms permitted. These online versions of Excel and Access are essentially very similar to what Google offers.

It seems logical to suggest that Microsoft must be looking to incorporate full functionality into the online versions of these programs. The world is heavily invested in Office due to its massive success over the last twenty years, and so full online functionality would be likely to be well-received, enabling Microsoft to retain its market leading position in the years to come. Google may be looking to do something similar, and so it seems the two giants are in a race to provide what customers want. Surely this can only be a good thing for the customer. I would expect Microsoft to continuously add functionality to its online offering in the coming years, though have no idea when they might be able to incorporate functionality as complex as VBA programmatic control. Having made Excel and Access crash many times by writing a dodgy line of VBA code, I know that there must be a huge number of practical hurdles to achieving this goal with cloud computing in web-enabled apps.

However, Google and Microsoft are not the end of the story. There are companies offering online tools which provide the kind of functionality that advanced users of VBA, Excel and Access are seeking from any online replacements. Many users of these legacy programs are now ditching them in favour of alternative suppliers. Excel is frequently employed by advanced users to create dashboard-style analyses with controls and filters, which end users can interact with to explore data; there has been a proliferation of software that provides this kind of functionality online in the last 10 years.

Tableau and QlikView are examples of software designed specifically to suck up data from a variety of sources and present it back to users in an easily digestible and interactive graphical form. More recently, I have become aware of Zoho, a cloud software company that have developed a suite of tools for various business operations. Of particular interest to me is their tool Zoho Creator, which enables users to build custom online applications for data collection and management. The key aspect of it which makes it so intriguing is their coding system, called Deluge. This enables people with limited coding experience to programmatically control the applications they build. As with most programming languages, the sky is the limit, with anything from very simple customisations to complex automation being possible. In a sense, their customers can now develop complex, constantly developing, cloud-based IT systems for their businesses without needing to employ a software development team, or rely on an off-the-shelf system.

I believe that something akin to Zoho’s offering is the future: powerful, online/offline software and storage that puts the power in the users’ hands. I am looking for something which is powerful, but can also be quite simple; something intuitive and easy to learn; something that brings the functionality into my control without me having to resort to specialist coders or limit my end users to a desktop version. With so many players emerging, and the technology giants looking to compete hard, the developing world of online data management and analysis software will be worth keeping an eye on.