Poll: Do you create spreadsheets that would be better as apps?

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Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

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    Lightbulb Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    For all their versatility, spreadsheets don't always seem like an optimal solution. I'm specifically thinking of "spreadsheet templates" that are typically created by one person or one team for use by others. In these spreadsheets, some cells are designated as input cells and other cells (containing formulas) display results. Unless cells are protected, users can easily edit the formulas and potentially ruin the spreadsheet. While VBA, forms and Automation can be used to create better user interfaces, users are often expected to enter data in the standard grid, which arguably isn't very user-friendly. These types of spreadsheets are even more awkward on mobile devices (think of a cramped smartphone screen).

    Apps are the obvious answer and provide user interfaces tailored to a specific device family (such as iOS, Android, desktop computers and the web) and provide better safety. Of course, spreadsheets are a lot easier for the layperson to produce, whereas apps generally require costly software developers to get involved.

    Do these issues resonate with you guys? Have you ever produced a spreadsheet for use by others and wished that you instead could have sent an app? Has anyone taken the plunge and asked to have a spreadsheet converted to an app?

    Full disclosure: I work for a small company producing calculator apps for use by healthcare professionals and we get sent spreadsheets that people wish to have converted to apps. (I would like to spur discussion with this post and not have it come across as an ad, so I'll refrain from linking to our web site.) We have considered making our technology more widely available, enabling people who normally use Microsoft Excel and who aren't software developers to create professional-quality calculator apps for various platforms, and we're curious as to whether there is a market for such a solution.

    What I'm proposing is a web-based tool allowing apps to be easily designed. From a usability point-of-view, this would be as easy to use as Excel. Users would be able to press a button and have apps generated for various platforms, including iOS, Windows Phone, Android, the web and various desktop platforms (such as Windows).

    We do have much of the technology already (developed for our own use over the years) but we need to know that there is a market for this technology before we commit our resources to making this technology available. I'd appreciate your insight on this issue.

    Best regards,
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    David Polberger
    Neosupport AB

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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    you can always use access instead
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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    Quote Originally Posted by martindwilson View Post
    you can always use access instead
    If your sole objective is to make it harder for users to modify formulas, I suppose that would work. (Then again, there are means of achieving those ends using only Excel or using Excel in conjunction with a third-party product. You could protect cells, create a form-based user interface, hide formulas in Visual Basic code or use a third-party product such as"URL DELETED BY MOD" It wouldn't help you create attractive calculator apps for smartphones, tablets, desktops and the web, though, which is what I'm proposing.

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    Last edited by vlady; 01-23-2014 at 10:51 PM.

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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    Most, no all the Excel applications that I design run to several sheets and within sheets potentially hundreds of rows and tens of columns.
    In short a lot of data and derived results. Many also rely on imports from csv files or data query connections. I'm finding it hard to imagine how these would sensibly work as a phone app. But maybe that's just my lack of imagination.

    I've had clients ask about capturing data on iPads for eventual consolidation into a larger database for subseqent analysis and dashboard reporting in Excel proper and on one trial occasion used google docs for that.
    Richard Buttrey

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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    Hi Richard,

    All spreadsheets are not, as you note, prime candidates for being converted into apps. Data-heavy sheets do not work well with mobile devices with software keyboards and small screens. What I have in mind are what I have come to refer to as "Excel calculators" -- spreadsheets with cells clearly designated as either input cells or output cells. The former are empty and the latter contain formulas. Those cells constitute the user interface of the "application." The formulas themselves can be arbitrarily complicated and refer to hidden tables, but the cells that the user has to interact with are always quite few.

    I believe that these spreadsheets lend themselves well to being made available as apps, with forms as the user interface instead of a grid. Excel does, of course, provide web apps, but these apps still look like grid-based spreadsheets and don't look or feel like native iOS or Android apps. I'm thinking that providing a facility for producing such apps would be a boon for users, who would not have to go hire professional developers.

    Best regards,
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    David Polberger
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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    I remember Assembler, where we worked with just a few registers - it became quite esoteric
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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    No.

    Distributing a (relatively simple) Excel workbook raises no eyebrows whatsoever with our corporate IT bods.

    Trying to distribute an unknown, untested, unverifiable standalone app would be almost impossible. I can just imagine trying to deal with IT managers all over the world, trying to convince them that this app is safe, it's tested, it fits our technology roadmap, it's supported, it's compliant... And THEN trying to persuade our end users to use it, how to use it, why to use it...

    Everyone is comfortable with Excel. And if it's simple enough to fit a mobile app, it's certainly simple enough to distribute as a small XLSX, without needing any sorts of approvals whatsoever.

    So, NO. I never feel that small Excel workbooks would need to be upscaled to standalone apps.

    BI solutions, on the other hand... well... But that's far from the scope you're asking about, OP
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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    An APP that is an interface INTO a large more recognized platform, that I could get behind.

    An APP that tried to BE the platform? You've said it, nightmare and hardly worth the effort.
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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    Hi OllyXLS,

    You raise a good point, distributing stand-alone native apps and getting them installed is significantly more complicated than simply sending a spreadsheet (especially in an enterprise setting). Distributing a workbook instead of an app essentially uses Excel as an app runtime, and Excel happens to be already installed in most shops. There is, however, another runtime that is installed everywhere, and that is a web browser, making web apps a workable solution in locked-down environments. (The e-health apps we produce are native, though, and are considered important enough to make deployment a non-issue.)

    We have customers that have created Excel and Google Docs spreadsheets and are looking to convert them to apps. The reason is that they find the user interfaces of spreadsheets cumbersome to use, especially in the field. (One customer repairs heavy machinery and needs access to calculations as part of that process. They prefer the forms found in custom calculator apps to the grids presented by spreadsheet apps.) Other customers want to move to apps to prevent users from introducing subtle errors in formulas or to include better data validation. Some wish to include app-like navigation, others want to include extensive HTML documentation. With our Calcapp Creator initiative (a landing page), we're hearing from users every day that are interested in moving to apps.

    The solution I'm describing is not for everyone, clearly, and certainly not the right one in every context, but we're seeing enough interest to go ahead and develop the solution I described in my first post. Thanks for your candid responses.

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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    I would like to spur discussion with this post and not have it come across as an ad
    Interesting because, until I re-read the OP and noted this disclaimer, I had come to the conclusion this was just that, an ad. It seems that you know what you want to do, you have identified a market, you have clients knocking on your door, and you have the tools, knowledge and skills to produce such an app.

    So what's the point of the thread other than to raise awareness of your company and its products? That is, an ad.

    Regards, TMS
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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    Hi Trevor,

    Quote Originally Posted by TMShucks View Post
    So what's the point of the thread other than to raise awareness of your company and its products? That is, an ad.
    I started the thread in September last year. Since then, we have talked to a lot of people and gotten enough confidence in the idea to go ahead with it. Back in September, we hadn't done that work and didn't know if the idea was viable.

    Best regards,
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    David Polberger
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    Re: Are some spreadsheets better as apps?

    @David: fair enough. I hadn't actually noticed the OP date and that the thread had been revived more recently.

    Good luck with your venture. Must admit, I'm in the "lacking imagination" camp.

    Regards, TMS

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