Why you should license Excel 2013: and it’s not because of the BI

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As a general rule I do not recommend outright any particular product from any particular vendor but I am going to make an exception in the case of Excel 2013 and the accompanying release of SharePoint.

Other analysts have described the enhanced business intelligence capabilities of Excel 2013 and these may be terrific but they represent an evolution of the existing capabilities rather than something dramatically new. What is brand new is the governance and compliance capabilities that will be in Excel 2013.

Last year Microsoft acquired Prodiance, a leading provider of spreadsheet management tools. While by no means the largest (in terms of users) of the vendors in this space I have always liked the Prodiance user interface and it had all the major features one would expect from a spreadsheet management product: the ability to discover spreadsheets, facilities to associate the risks associated with each spreadsheet (by business value, complexity, likelihood of breakage and so on), error detection and remediation, and the ability to take spreadsheets under central control.

In Excel 2013 all of these features will be built in, either to Excel itself or SharePoint. To my mind this makes Excel 2013 a more or less mandatory acquisition. It means that, for the first time, you can get proper governance and error checking and correction facilities built directly into Excel.

This release is going to have some serious consequences in the market. There are, broadly speaking, two categories of product in the spreadsheet management space: error detection and correction tools such as Spreadsheet Detective that you can download for a few hundred dollars, and full-blown spreadsheet management tool (like Prodiance) from companies such as Cimcon, Cluster Seven and Finsbury Solutions as well as Boardwalktech (which is more about collaboration) and Lyquidity (more focused on the mid-market). Where do any of these vendors go? Why bother with the likes of Spreadsheet Detective and its ilk when you can get comparable facilities for free? And why spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on a solution from Cimcon or Cluster Seven for the same reason? That’s not to say that you might not prefer one of these solutions to Microsoft’s but that will have to be an awfully big preference to justify the cost involved. Of course, for a while there will remain a market for these companies in pre-2013 versions of Excel but that will gradually disappear. In short, I cannot see these companies surviving long-term unless they can diversify.

However, this does not necessarily mean the end for all of these companies. With Excel 2013 having built-in governance I would not recommend anyone using Google Spreadsheets or Open Office in preference to Excel 2013 for anything except trivial applications. So, if Google (say) wants to compete with Microsoft at the enterprise level then it will have to develop or acquire comparable governance capabilities to Microsoft: which means that there is the possibility of an acquisition for any of Prodiance’s erstwhile competitors. But other than that I don’t hold out much hope.

The position with BI companies that target what used to be known as spreadmarts is slightly different. Actuate, for example, markets BIRT Spreadsheet (what used to be Actuate e.Spreadsheet). Theoretically this directly competes with Excel 2013 in that it offers both spreadsheet and governance capabilities but what the new features of Excel 2013 mean is that Actuate has now to persuade users to give up Excel for its environment, for no immediately obvious gain in functionality. That looks like a hard task. Of course, Actuate has other strings to its bow so it’s not going to be in the same position as the pure-play vendors discussed above but, again, I don’t really see this product surviving either.

So the bottom line is that Excel 2013 represents a killer blow by Microsoft. It will destroy other vendors in the spreadsheet governance space and removes any technical reasons for moving away from Excel to other environments.