What Can Be Done About Excel?

Excel is pretty weird, right?  All of the other MS Office products basically do what they say on the tin.  Word is a word processor.  Powerpoint lets you make annoying presentations that everyone at your office will hate.  And… um… I’m sure there are some other products in the suite.

But Excel isn’t so much a spreadsheet as a substrate for all American business practices ever.  It’s more of a platform than a product, on which every business that I’m aware of has built extensive, creaky, rather shockingly intricate custom applications — built, of course, by non-programmers who don’t really conceive of themselves as having written code.  Excel is the single Microsoft application that seems to me to be genuinely irreplaceable, and I shudder to imagine the total economic cost if everyone had to migrate away from it.

There’s some kind of opportunity here.  If there was some way to bleed, say, 5% of the business applications built on Excel into some kind of tool purpose-built to allow non-programmers to build business applications, then whoever built that application could print money.  But there’s both an enormous, society-wide lock-in to Excel, and anything that aspired to replace it would face an almost unsolvable UI challenge.

Maybe someone could just build a kind of framework around Excel — something that expedites and smooths the common practice of copy & pasting business-critical data into and out of the application.  Maybe we should just accept that hundreds of years from now, the central logic of the AI that replaces humanity will have started life as a particularly complicated budget document.

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