More spreadsheets, spreadsheets, spreadsheets

It’s been a few weeks since I started playing around with Google Spreadsheets, as an alternative to Microsoft Excel. What’s odd is how, when Google is about all things touch screen, and Microsoft’s heritage is in computers with real keyboards and mice, that Excel feels more suitable for a touchscreen. ‘Twasn’t always so.

Back in 2008, when we first got Excel 2007 in my office (as traditional, nobody seems to install Microsoft products on time), I hated it. Microsoft moved from having a toolbar jammed with all sorts of tiny buttons to the Ribbon, a series of enormous toolbars with giant buttons, like a Fisher Price version of a spreadsheet. Nothing was in the right place and all of a sudden there was an extra keypress everywhere to get to buttons that were previously ready to hand. (Is there a Hiedeggeran point to this, perhaps?)

Eventually, I got used to this; perhaps acceptance, perhaps acquiescence. Once I finally learned that you could customize the toolbar and put your favourite buttons at the top of the screen, rather than buried in a recess of the Ribbon, things sped up.

If you’re in 2008 and you don’t have a massive screen, the Ribbon is a terrible waste of the top two inches of your screen. Six years later, with ever-bigger screens and my ever weaker eyes, those larger Ribbon buttons are easy to locate, and because there’s lots of different tabs within the Ribbon, lots of different functionality is just a tap away.

Google Spreadsheets doesn’t have a Ribbon; it has just one set of buttons in the toolbar, and they’re not that big, and as they’re very minimally black on grey, they’re a bit hard to pick out.

gdocs menu

But there’s also not that many of them, so unlike in Excel where there’s space for a button to Remove Duplicates and another for sorting data and another for pasting data and another for splitting text into columns, there just isn’t that much room to expose functionality to the user.

That means it’s hard to find things that are obvious in Excel. You can eliminate duplicates in Google Spreadsheets (using a UNIQUE() function over a range, but that’s quite a bit of typing, not a single click or tap of a screen. Likewise, there isn’t a button to transpose, there’s twelve: =-T-R-A-N-S-P-O-S-E-(-).

TRANSPOSE() and UNIQUE() are nicer than what Excel has, because you can do clever things like transposing a column of data and only showing the unique values from it, and have that update every time you put something new into the original column, but it’s painful to have to type so much.

What I do like is that you can incorporate data more easily from the Web into a Google Spreadsheet than into Excel. It’s very easy to write a formula to get the up to date foreign exchange rate, or a stock price, whereas in Excel there’s some documentation knocking around from 2007 when there used to be web service integration in Excel, which they took out to make you buy Sharepoint licenses or something.

There’s a limit on how many external references you can have (which is stopping me building the World’s Greatest Stock Analysis Spreadsheet), and I can’t figure out where you find out what that limit is, but it’s nice to be able to loom a few things up.

What’s surprising is that if you are running a two monitor setup, like any good spreadsheet geek, it’s irritating to find that Excel only works within one screen. You end up wasting all the space that the second screen gave you. With Google Spreadsheets you can have two spreadsheets, both maximized, on your two screens, and do all kinds of fun stuff.

If you find spreadsheets fun, of course.

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