The Northern Spy: To Excel or not to Excel
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The Northern Spy: To Excel or not to Excel

By Rick Sutcliff

The Spy has become a cautious adopter rather than an early one. As the reader of this space well knows, he has been unwilling (and unable) to upgrade from Excel 2004 because of his very heavy dependance on macros, which the 2008 version lacked. This in turn meant that he could not use Lion, as 2004 would not run at all in that environment.

Nor was he willing to convert all those macros to one of the open source competitors, even though VBA is a textbook example of how not to design a language, if for no other reasons than its complete lack of orthogonality and wretched documentation. The 2011 version has been out some time now, with the macro facility restored, and this has to be run on an Intel system, of which he has two (out of nine total). Since his main spreadsheet file is production bookkeeping software, harbours mission critical data, and he's had little time for experimentation, the process of certifying 2011 for this purpose was glacial.

The first time he read a copy of his four megabyte workbook file into 2011, the program reported a file error and possible data damage, but appeared to have read it intact despite the message. So, he saved another copy without making any changes, opened that in 2004, made some minor changes, and saved it again as a third copy, which read into 2011 without incident, everything still intact. Further detailed experimentation pointed the finger at a complex graph embedded on one page of the original, but could produce no clue as to what 201 originally flagged as wrong.

All macros have now been thoroughly tested, and appear to work. Files edited in 2004 and/or 2011 make the round trip intact, and everything appears to be in order. Further, 2011 appears to crash less often than 2004, which under Leopard routinely died after half an hour or more of data entry--possibly a memory de-allocation problem, which is common to C++ programs. At least when it did crash, the recovery file usually had most of the data intact, and rarely more than ten minutes was sacrificed rectifying the situation.

There was a recent incident where, following such a 2004 version crash, all the formulae on one page of the workbook vanished, and then only numbers remained, as if there had been a secret copy-all-paste-special-values-only operation performed on the entire page (all other pages were intact). This required a Time Machine rescue of the formulas from a backup. However, so far, few crashes and no data loss can be attributed to Excel 2011. The Spy has run it only under Snow Leopard thus far, and he also still prefers the older look and feel, but is so far satisfied that 2011 is the side grade that 2008 should have been, and that it strikes an compromise he can live with between the two in look and feel.

The spreadsheet, not the word processor, is the single most important small computer application. The original VisiCalc drove the Apple ][ computer to dominance. The ability to combine database functions, financial reporting, and forecasting with "what-if" scenarios into a single application was ground breaking. It created the small computer revolution, and is responsible for its development into a far more useful and versatile tool today, in which the spreadsheet plays a proportionately lesser role than it once did.

The Spy had one of the first hundred copies of VisiCalc produced, would later test and reject Lotus 1-2-3 as bloated, but adopt the Apple Puget Sound Program Library Exchange (A.P.P.L.E.) entry "The Spreadsheet" as his workhorse software for many years, switching to the vastly superior Excel when MS first released it for the Mac. It is quite possible that his current models still contain code from the late 1970s.

Excel was, until 2004, the best of category, and thus, in the Spy's lexicon, the most significant (and the best) application across all software categories, despite the display, printing, and VBA quirks that require so many workarounds. He is cautiously optimistic that it has now by restoring the lost 2004 functionality regained at least a share that crown, but advises those starting out in spreadsheets to consider carefully the open source alternatives to save money. He will himself, should he ever be up to rewriting his many macros in a better language. (How does he know the open source language is better without using it? It could not be worse, even on purpose.)

He also expresses his concern that if MS were again to require seven years to complete an update, Excel would inevitably go the same was as Lotus 1-2-3, and for exactly the same reason. What indeed will happen if Apple changes to the A6 chip or similar for the Mac, as seems reasonably likely? Would MS be able to produce a new version, or simply abandon the effort?

The astute reader will note however, that the Spy's high praise for Excel does not by any means extend to other MS products. Word, for instance, is bloated, non-intuitive, prefers a proprietary file format, does not exchange files well, and has difficulty with the very large files (300K words+) he often handles. He has tested dozens of word processors over the years, and of them all, rates it ahead of only the ill-fated, bug-ridden, and badly-written Word Perfect for the Mac (which he could never persuade to walk, much less run, for more than a few minutes at a time).

He has happily used Nisus Writer Pro (and the OS 9 version before it) for many years now as his workhorse for the vast majority of small documents, and for final proofing of assembled large ones. It recently caught up with the pre-version ten Nisus product, and is marginally better today by now having collaborative editing facilities, mail merge, the ability to read some .docx files, and an improved macro facility in the most recent versions. Nisus also offers a stripped down Express version of the program for those with lesser needs and fewer dollars to support them.

However, Literature and Latte's incomparably excellent Scrivener, with its support for multiple chapters, outlining, storyboarding, composition notes, research sections, multiple format export, thematic editing, and other composers' tools for book and screen writing, is by far his choice (and deserves to be everyone's) for the initial composition of large documents and books. Frankly, Word has nothing to offer someone who splits his time between Scrivener and Nisuswriter. Oh, and did you know? Literature and Latte has now released the program for that other OS. What is the world coming to?

As for browsers, Explorer was the poorest offering on the Mac by far before MS abandoned it as a lost cause, to the great delight of web site authors and users both. The same action is overdue on the PC, for Safari and Firefox are all a surfer needs.

Likewise, FileMaker Pro is the current champion of small-computer cross-platform database managers, and MS simply has never had anything comparable to offer. Finally, the Spy still prefers the long-in-tooth but reliable old Eudora to any mail program seen since, including all offerings from MS and even from Apple. However, when he finally does switch to Lion this summer, he will have to move elsewhere. Extensive research appears to give a marginal preliminary nod on Apple's Mail over Thunderbird, with everything else far in the distance, though he remains reluctant to give up the tried, the true, and the working. (He's had issues with Apple Mail in his consulting work, though most appear to have been resolved in current versions.)

As a last word, take W*nd*ws (please take it). The Spy has never been able to understand why anyone would use a cheap, buggy imitation of Apple's slick OS when they can have the real thing. He, for one, cannot afford the down time. This, like the stock market, merely goes to show that decisions in the land of business are made primarily on the basis of emotion rather than reason.

And on that latter note, the Spy closes with a word of caution. He did think Apple's stock undervalued in the $300 range. But $200 or more in increases later, at a PE ratio of over 15, and as a $500B company (sixteen times that of Dell) it appears to have excelled (sic) to the point that it is fully valued under current conditions. Since on the upside, investors buy on rumour and sell on fact, we should assume that the prospect of a dividend is nearly fully priced in, though institutional purchases would, in that event, support a high valuation for many years to come. Anything beyond the current price is all for future considerations, of which there could be many--eventually. (Not that he gives investing advice or would expect anyone to take it if he did).

Oh, and excellent fortune, if he may use the terms, to the about-to-be-launched iPad 3.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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