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10 May 2011

The weakness of Excel

By Andrew Clifford

Although Excel is the most widely-used general-purpose application, there are many requirements it does not meet.

General-purpose applications are applications that can be configured to provide solutions for many different requirements. They are valuable because they enable IT solutions where there is not enough time, money, justification, political will, expertise or clarity for a packaged solution or a custom application.

The best known general-purpose application is Excel. But lots of other applications, such as process management tools, reporting tools, web content management systems and collaboration products, could be used for multiple purposes.

To decide whether an application can really be considered general-purpose, we need to establish a list of criteria. Here is my list.

  • The application must be able to meet a very broad variety of needs. A single installation of a general-purpose application should be able to support multiple solutions.
  • The application should allow solutions to be created within the application itself, without requiring separate development tools.
  • The application should should present data storage, processing and user interaction at a high-level of abstraction, not using SQL calls, screen design and code. For example, Excel presents storage, manipulation and interaction through an easy-to-understand grid metaphor.
  • To support group working, the application should be available as a multi-user, network-based solution, for example as a web application. It should manage user accounts and permissions. This is the main weakness of Excel. Although it can be accessed from a network share, it is fundamentally a PC-based application, and can only be used by one person at a time.
  • The application should support at least basic development disciplines. It must be possible to separate functionality from data, to allow new solutions to be developed and tested independently of earlier versions.
  • The application should allow non-expert end-users to build simple solutions for themselves from within the application.
  • Advanced features for specialists, such as custom functions or custom screen design, should also be provided within the application, and not require an additional development tool.
  • The application should allow integration with other systems, for example using web services.

Excel falls short of these criteria, particularly in its support for true multi-user access. Other tools, like content management systems or reporting systems, meet most of the criteria, but are too specialised to be truly general-purpose. Some enterprise tools, such as Lotus Domino, meet more criteria. However, these are much larger, more complicated and more expensive solutions. Lotus Domino is a development and execution environment with collections of applications, not a single general-purpose application that can be simply configured for multiple purposes.

From my admittedly narrow knowledge of the IT marketplace, I do not know of current products that meet all the criteria for a truly general-purpose application. I think that this lack of products is more than chance, and is due to limitations in how we think about IT tools. Next week I will cover the fundamental concept of metadata and how it causes these limitations. The week after I will suggest a way to overcome these limitations and create a truly general-purpose application.

Next: The curse of metadata

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