Sunday, October 30, 2005

Excel is the Killer Office App

MS Office owns the productivity suite space. There are lots of reasons why. And there are lots of reasons why it stays entrenched. The Outlook/Exchange combination is a huge hook for firms running exchange. The lack of solid, affordable mail alternatives creates a strong lock in. But what about smaller firms not using Exchange? Or larger companies using Lotus or Novell for email? What's the hook that keeps them using Office?


I use Word less and less because more and more of my communication is via email. Yes there are still heavy paper users out there, attorneys come to mind, but the DOC format has been disected pretty well and the Word alternatives seem acceptable for most folks.

Access is under assault from all kinds of areas. IT shops love to hunt down and kill rogue Access apps created by users. Sarbox regulations help kill those little helper apps as well. MySQL and PHP are stealing a lot of Access' bread and butter users and VS2005 plus SQL Express 2005 may get a lot of wanabe developers.

Powerpoint is an app that people get with Office. They want it included, but their not willing to pay much extra for it. Powerpoint is the ultimate love/hate relationship. It cries out for saving money throught concurrent licensing. Most people use Powerpoint only occasionally (and poorly at that). For the vast majority of users its nice to have, but not essential.

Then there is Excel. The glue that holds finance and accounting departments together. Mild mannered, green, six-column ledger paper morphed into a superhero of calculation. You can do a little bit of everything in Excel. I've known people who write letters in Excel, I've built databases in Excel. You certainly could do a decent presentation with Excel.

But here are the key things to understand about Excel's lock-in:
  • Finance departments control budgets. Finance departments LOVE Excel.
  • More IT departments are coming under the control of the CFO. Most CFO's know 2 core pieces of software. Email and Excel. If you try to replace these, you make the CFO feel old and stupid, NEVER a good idea, even if IT doesn't roll up through the CFO.
  • An Excel replacement has to be able to convert documents PERFECTLY. A few misspellings in Word conversion can be easily fixed with spellchecker. But a few wrong numbers can spell disaster. Remember, many Excel docs are EXTREMELY complex.
  • All Excel replacements have a different macro language. While comaratively few Excel users are macro users, the early adpoters, the geeks and the gurus who do use macros are strong influencers of other users.
  • Accountants love change - for others. They want you to change to work their way. Why do you think they call the position the Controller?

It's not all about features, it's about the relationships. The sheer number of features creates lots of little hooks into different groups, Accounting, Finance, Statistics, Scientists, etc. Each group has an emotional connection to a small set of features, but if you don't support their set, they won't switch.

The last several versions of Office have been ho-hum. Lots of incremental improvements but no single Wow. But the upcoming version of Excel has some great, core functionality improvements. Significantly improved conditional formatting, better column/row functionality, significantly better name control, etc.

These are core pieces that haven't been improved for several versions and will untimately create even more lock in for Excel. If you want to see more of the new Excel, take look at the Microsoft Excel 12 blog. I'm excited about what's coming.

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