Google's Spreadsheet: Excel It Ain't

Google has decided to enter the spreadsheet business, and starting today they're taking applications for participation in the beta. It will be some type of web application, with an HTML-based thin-client UI, but most of the details haven't been announced yet. You can take an extremely simple tour here, but it's just three screenshots and a few bulleted items describing bare-bones spreadsheet functionality.

The press is describing this as a competitor to Excel, which is a stretch. Google's offering will be a simple "spreadsheet maker" application for people who don't want or need the richness of Excel, and there don't seem to be many people in that market to date. There have always been low-end web-based spreadsheets available, and existing products like Thinkfree haven't made a dent in Excel's popularity. In fact, Excel's reach continues to expand, and the new features in Excel 2007 will surely accelerate that growth.

Excel offers a rich interface that empowers users to create spectacular spreadsheets quickly with no formal training. After looking at the simple tour above, check out the new Office UI to get a feel for how the experience of using Excel compares to Google's plans. Speaks for itself, doesn't it?

Another behind-the-scenes aspect of any spreadsheet application is the documents that it creates: what formats are supported, and what types of functionality can be saved in those formats? Google's plans say they'll support CSV, XLS, and HTML formats. So users will have a choice between the complex and fragile binary XLS format, or the extremely limited functionality you can save in a CSV (just columns of text and numbers) or HTML document (same thing, with some pretty formatting options added). There's nothing in Google's plans that can compare with the interoperability offered by Excel 2007's support for Open XML.

Dan Bricklin, the guy who invented the concept of a computerized spreadsheet (i.e., Visicalc), is watching Google's plans closely. His latest project, WikiCalc, is an attempt to provide a reasonably good web experience for collaboration on spreadsheets, and it has some interesting features such as a simple straightforward way of connecting cells to web services, or the capability to include any arbitrary HTML markup within cells.

It's interesting that Google is apparently offering a product that's a subset of WikiCalc, aimed at the same market. I'd say Google is competing more with WikiCalc than with Excel. Or, as Don Dodge points out, they're competing with OpenOffice. But to call this a competitor for Excel is like calling Gmail a competitor for Outlook. Remember when people were saying that? :-)

For more information about Google's plans, see this article on eWeek today, or Don Campbell's blog post on the topic.