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I’ve been an Excel user since 1988. That’s right, before there was a proper version of Windows that many would recognize (Windows 3.0). Excel was still biting the dust of Lotus 1-2-3, the killer app of the time. For many, the spreadsheet was the sole reason for owning a $10k PC.

During my internship at Microsoft around 1990/1991, I provided tech support for Excel 3.0. At that time, I shared an apartment with a guy whose name may have been Steve, who did MacWord support. We got along OK, except on days that he made turkey pot pie, a brew that cooked and cooked all day long and peeled the paint off the walls.

Steve and I were different. Steve was entirely satisfied with the current state of the art in computer software, namely, MacWord. He took pride in knowing all the ins and outs at the functional level and found satisfaction in finding the limits of the application. For Steve, MacWord was the operating system. It was the universe. It was big and probably expanding and he would never see the edge.

I, on the other hand, was keenly aware of the limitations of Excel. With one keystroke you would be at the end of the sheet. Each spreadsheet cell had a definite limit. And there were only a finite set of menus and functions. But Excel, despite its limits, was rich. Whereas in MacWord you were basically always working on something that you would eventually print, Excel produced something that could live on and on as you tweaked your formulas. Excel could do things. With Excel, you could calculate, interpolate, and extrapolate. Plus, Excel had macros that you could program. Excel was the king of applications.

These were the days when a typical PC had a couple of MB of RAM, and we shared files with 5.25” flexible disks (“floppies”). These were also the days when Microsoft was still small, when everybody could fit into a company party.

I believe that Excel reached maturity at version 5. It must have been around 1996. I was more than ever convinced that Excel was the king of applications. I spent a lot of time in Excel and I knew my way around pretty good and did many hacks to push Excel to do things it wasn’t really designed for. I almost turned into Steve for a while. (I can now almost smell that turkey again).

I was pretty proud too. During my internship I had contributed with countless ideas and feature requests, many of which eventually got into the product.
Two notable mentions: the charting and printing wizards were based on my design. Charting and printing were huge call generators. As much as 80% of our time was spent with tunneling dialog boxes and desperate customers just trying to print a pretty chart. I spent a day mapping out all the functionality and wrapped it into sequential dialog boxes with Next and Previous buttons and sent the design off to the PM for Excel. Voilà, the Wizard was born in Excel 4.0, magic stick and all!

It’s now 2013 and Excel has gone through a number of iterations since. It’s both awesome and depressing to see where it has ended up. It’s awesome that Excel has gained universal acceptance and basically runs the business world. But I find it depressing that for the past 20-or so years, the spreadsheet has basically not advanced beyond its original conception. Excel is not anymore an example of something that is state of the art. It is plagued with many problems for which Microsoft could have created solutions. But why tamper with success? Right.

It has now come to the point where I think the spreadsheet in its current incarnation is outliving its usefulness. When weighed against the risks that are assumed with the use of Excel spreadsheets, no IT department and no decision maker should prefer the use of Excel for business critical functions. It’s come to the point where we need a new paradigm for end user programming.

Except that there is to date no viable alternative that can easily take Excel’s place and easily gain acceptance among a 500M+ user base. People are wedded to Excel. For many people Excel has become a limb. Taking Excel away from them would be akin to amputation. You can perhaps pry it loose from their dead bodies if you’re lucky.

The question I walk around with from day to day is: can Excel be displaced, and if so, by what and how? There are numerous competing products available which are essentially clones of Excel. Some have neat functionality, which make them apparently modern and future-ready. But in the end, they are just basically Excel with either a few more or a few less features.

Now while I’m at it, Word. Don’t get me started on Microsoft Word. Don’t, I said.
Ok. I won’t get in to deep. Suffice to say, Word is one of the most user-hostile applications that I know. Using this application is an exercise in masochism. Being in Word is like getting your teeth pulled to prepare for a job interview. Word also disfigures the mind in that it makes you think in a totally unnatural way about a text document. I truly find it one of the most unsatisfying pieces of software that exists. But I still use it. It comes with Office and everybody uses it. None of the wyswyg alternatives that I tried have impressed me.

We might think that Word and Excel are here to stay. I agree that for the foreseeable future, Microsoft Office is probably going to be around. But stranger things have happened. The Titanic sunk. Black Swans do exist.

For me, the ultimate exercise would be to displace Microsoft Office with an alternative so obvious and pure that one will instantly want to completely forget Office. It would require no training and gain immediate acceptance, by all kinds of users, basic and advanced. Like a virus it will spread and swallow Excel’s legacy of spreadsheets and Word’s documents.

I would try not to differentiate between various applications, like Word and Excel and Outlook and Visio and PowerPoint. I want ONE application to be a canvas in which you can do everything. Just like you start up your computer to do things, you will open the universal computation canvas and get to work.

Oh and I will gladly accept some VC money and get cracking at this full time. I’d love to put an Office Displacement team together to create something that’s got utility for both the Cobol and Facebook generations, for putterers and pros. Something that can run an enterprise or be used for doing a homework assignment. A computing canvas that will make Office obsolete. YEHA!