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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Spreadsheets Are Hot—and Cranking Out Complex Code

For decades, the spreadsheet has been the least sexy form of consumer software. Necessary? Sure. Critical to the drudgery of running a business, doing your banking, or figuring out a financial plan? 100 percent.

But an exciting, innovative piece of tech? Oh God no. If you were a hotshot young developer in recent years, you flocked to Silicon Valley’s hyperoxygenated fields, such as AI or crypto or the various legless metaversii. You didn’t go into spreadsheets. That was gray-flannel-suit territory.

This meant that for decades, very little effort went into improving this venerable piece of officeware. Yeah, Google put spreadsheets online in 2006 (by buying up a firm that had done so), and in 2012 Airtable launched a clever sort of turducken of a database and spreadsheet. But those were the exceptions. Mostly, startups were content to let Excel and Sheets be the 100-pound gorillas, dominating a user base of about 2 billion people who use spreadsheets. And users have been generally pretty happy with Excel and Sheets.

Except this made this neglected field an opportunity, too, right? Not a lot of software categories have a planet-wide base of users yet few coders trying to bust out new features.

Suddenly, the field has begun to bloom. A small cluster of startups have in the past year released spreadsheet products–such as Rows, Spreadsheet.com, and Grist–with newfangled robot superpowers, like automatically hoovering up data from other sites or sending emails when the logic in a formula triggers. In a strange way, they’ve taken spreadsheets and turned them into all-purpose, helpful bots–crafted from rows and columns.

These new services all spring from a core observation of their inventors, which is that spreadsheets are now used for far more than crunching numbers. These days, people use them as a fungible organizational tool: They make to-do lists inside spreadsheets, plan weddings, divine the best possible Magic decks, and run fantasy football groups.

“Spreadsheets were originally designed for accounting purposes and for computations, but they just grew to be the sort of standard way that we organize all data,” as Matt Robinson, CEO of Spreadsheet.com, tells me. In fact, when he and his cofounder, Murali Mohan, surveyed business folk who used Excel or Google Sheets, they found that half the time people weren’t writing formulas or crunching numbers in their sheets. They weren’t doing any math. They were just making lists.

(Even funnier, some spreadsheet users don’t even realize you can do math inside them. When Robinson and his wife hired a contractor to build their house, the guy showed them a spreadsheet of costs–but then whipped out a calculator to tote up the figures manually. When Robinson showed him how the spreadsheet could do it automatically, he was floored.)

So the new crop of sheets are designed to lean away from pure math, and into this “organize your stuff” function. Spreadsheets.com, for example, lets users dump almost anything into a cell. Drop a photo or a PDF into a cell and the product will immediately create a thumbnail, which you can then expand, as if the spreadsheet were some sort of blog content-management system. Most of these new products also let users connect their sheets to other Internet services, so they can scrape info off other sites, or issue alerts if data changes.

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In that sense, spreadsheets are joining the “no code” trend in Silicon Valley—they’re becoming tools that let non-programmers automate some very complex workflows. I spoke to Mário Tarouca, a Portuguese entrepreneur who used Rows in precisely that way. He’d founded a startup in Lisbon (now acquired by the food-ordering firm EatTasty) that let people in Airbnbs order delivery meals from local cooks. Tarouca used Rows as the backend for his service: Customer orders flowed into his sheets from his web site, and local cooks typed their inventory into forms he created with Rows; if a formula detected the cooks weren’t making enough of a particular item (orders for omelettes > supply of omelettes), the sheets would blast a warning out to his team’s Slack so someone could deal with it.

“I’m not a developer, but I’m a geek,” he told me. “It’s really fun to build these things.” Because he was already familiar with regular spreadsheets, he says, it wasn’t terribly hard to figure out.

Indeed, as Tarouca pointed out, a spreadsheet is actually better for building a small business app than an old-fashioned database. Databases are powerful but inscrutable; to see what’s “in” yours, you need to query it, which usually means having a programmer on staff.

But with a spreadsheet, everyone knows how to open it up and look at it. The user interface—columns and rows—is part of our cognitive canon, and decades of use have trained businessfolk everywhere in what tech writer Steven Levy neatly dubbed, back in 1984, “A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge.

Indeed, the renaissance in spreadsheets draws a bead on just how intriguingly in-between they are, as a form of media. They’re like the Rosetta Stone of file formats: They’re easy to view like a Word file, they can do math like a programming language, yet they store info like a database.

Which is why spreadsheet inventors are actively trying to peel people away from databases, a global market worth probably $90 billion. One limitation of spreadsheets historically is that they were not, like many databases, “relational.” You couldn’t easily connect two sheets, which meant that changing a sales figure in one sheet would not automatically be reflected in another.

This generation of nü-sheets allows for this crosstalk. Romy Recio, who runs a mortgage company in Florida, used Spreadsheet.com to automatically track mortgage applications for his 60 loan officers. In the olden days of Excel or Google sheets, if a customer’s address changed, they’d have to slog through multiple sheets, changing it on each one. “And you’re never gonna do that,” Recio says, so data risked getting lost.

The spreadsheet-database war is about as propeller-headed a subject as I’ve stumbled upon in years. But it’s fascinating to observe. Watching spreadsheets morph is like witnessing convergent evolution–a digital life-form that used to stick to the oceans, but is now crawling up onto land and trying to own the earth.


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