The Evolution of the Spreadsheet Is Transforming Analytics as We Know It

Daniel Codella

Data Evangelist, Sigma

Despite multiple attempts to kill it and thousands of articles proclaiming its imminent demise, the spreadsheet remains the most popular tool for analyzing data that has ever been invented. As early as the Mesopotamian era, humans have used rows and columns to organize information and make better decisions.

Today, a mind-boggling 2 billion people around the globe use spreadsheets in their work each month. But even with millions of people using them each and every day, the digital spreadsheet has remained relatively unchanged for the last four decades.

Has the humble spreadsheet outlived its usefulness in the world of data analytics? Are new and novel ways to visualize data like dashboards rendering the spreadsheet obsolete once and for all?

Hardly. In fact, a new incarnation of the spreadsheet is cloud connected and transforming analytics as we know it. But to fully appreciate where spreadsheets are going, we need to take a brief look at how they got to this point.

Bablyonian clay tablets ca. 1900-1600 BC – Source: UCLA

A Brief History of the Spreadsheet

While the spreadsheet has its roots in the ledgers of the ancient past, the digital spreadsheet was born in 1969. LANPAR (LANguage for Programming Arrays at Random) was developed to allow managers at Bell Canada to edit budget forms without having to depend on programmers and have computers calculate results on their own. From the very beginning, spreadsheets were aimed at giving non-technical business users the ability to crunch through data without having to code.

While LANPAR went on to be used by other companies like AT&T and General Motors, the explosion of spreadsheets really didn’t happen until they reached the personal computer in the 1970s. After watching his father and fellow students at Harvard Business School struggle with manual calculations, Dan Bricklin developed what eventually became VisiCalc in 1979, the first spreadsheet available on Apple II personal computers.

Many experts point to the spreadsheet as being a key driver of the personal computing boom of the 1980s. For the first time, masses of non-technical people across professions could conduct technical calculations and analyses without coding in the comfort of their homes and offices. This led to a string of copycat applications until 1985, when Microsoft entered the ring with the most popular spreadsheet in existence: Excel.

Microsoft had experimented with spreadsheet apps in the past, but with Excel they struck gold. The program made formulas and calculations easy and even included the ability to generate data visualizations like charts and graphs. Another notable development was its release on both Mac and PC, allowing people to open up spreadsheets on different computers and operating systems to enable collaboration.

VisiCalc may have introduced spreadsheets to the masses, but Excel made people fall in love. And Excel remained the undisputed king of the spreadsheets until 2006, when Google challenged the throne with two brilliant new innovations.

For one, Google moved the spreadsheet to the cloud. This enabled users to collaborate on a single spreadsheet together in real-time and helped with version control because the documents were all saved in the cloud. Secondly, Google made their spreadsheet, along with their other powerful tools, freely available as a comprehensive office platform. With just a web connection and a browser, people around the world on just about any device and operating system could create a powerful spreadsheet in seconds.

While the spreadsheet interface has grown easier to use, data itself has grown larger and more unwieldy over time. This has introduced complexity and layers of abstraction between people and data that have slowed business down.

Data Spreads Beyond the Sheet

When data was smaller and could all fit within the spreadsheet itself, ‘data proximity’ was high. The business user making decisions based off of the data and the person managing and analyzing the data were one and the same.

Over time, data began to outgrow the spreadsheet and move into relational databases only accessible through SQL. A gap formed between those who could access and manipulate data and those who couldn’t but needed it to make business decisions. This led to the creation of specialized BI teams that could collect, analyze and package data up in formats like CSVs that were digestible for domain experts.

But spreadsheets were not built to handle the volume and velocity of big data. Decision makers now find themselves restricted to working with extracts consisting of only small portions of datasets, or aggregates that prevent them from getting down to granular-level detail. Direct, real-time data access has seemed like a pipe dream.

Spreadsheet data is static. The world, on the other hand, is now connected 24/7. Markets move at the speed of light and disruption is always waiting around the corder. Today’s leading businesses cannot afford to make decisions based on static snapshots. The amount of input coming in to organizations is growing every day. The sheer number and variety of data formats being collected is impossible to reconcile together a single spreadsheet.

Lastly, CSV’s and other extracts still need to be downloaded onto local machines, and require a fair amount of manual input. This leads to all sorts of costly security risks and governance issues. Some have called Excel the most dangerous software on the planet.

For these and other reasons, many look to high-level KPI dashboards and other formats for their analytics. But these are only further abstractions that get in between people and their data. The future of analytics is tied to a new evolution of the spreadsheet — one that is purpose built for today’s cloud-enabled businesses.

Reuniting Domain Experts with the Data

The speed, velocity and variety of data being generated today is truly astounding and has fueled incredible innovation. Cloud data platforms have freed companies from the costs, complexity and headaches of managing on-prem data centers. They’ve also added near infinite scale and compute capabilities, unlocking a treasure trove of insights for companies to uncover.

Until now, the spreadsheet has failed to fully leverage the awesome power of the cloud and put data access back in the hands of domain experts. That’s why our team has been hard at work developing a cloud-native analytics tool that takes on the form and function of the spreadsheet and is purpose-built to harness the speed and power of the cloud data platform.

Using formulas they know and love, business users can directly access and seamlessly integrate live data in their company’s cloud data platform with Sigma – no SQL required. Unlike traditional spreadsheets that become unstable and crash after 1 million rows, Sigma is uniquely scalable and enables teams to zoom in and out of detail across several billion rows. And because the data never leaves the cloud data platform, it remains accurate, secure, and easily governed.

Sigma’s modern spreadsheet experience brings things full circle, again making it possible for people across industries and roles to crunch through data without having to code.

The Future of the Spreadsheet Is the Future of Analytics

Ultimately, the goal of any analytics program is to generate not just novel insights, but real business outcomes. And to do that, you need to break down the data language barrier and open up the conversation to as many people as possible.

Time and time again, it has proven itself as the one interface that allows technical and non-technical people alike to ask questions, iterate, and collaborate with data. It’s known, used, and loved by billions around the globe. When it comes to the future of analytics, don’t bet against the spreadsheet.

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