End users have been building applications on top of spreadsheets for decades now. In fact, arguably users of spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel and Lotus 1-2-3 are the original citizen developers. Today there is still a need to build applications based on spreadsheets but the way those applications are built is substantially changing.
The challenge with spreadsheets is they are essentially personal applications that are cumbersome to share. Many of the applications built on top of spreadsheets involve to one degree or another a way to make it simpler for end users to share data entered into a spreadsheet. Building those applications typically required the expertise of a spreadsheet jockey that had mastered all the nuances of the programming language that Microsoft created for Microsoft Excel.
Now there are multiple efforts underway to make it simpler to build these applications using low-code tools. Microsoft at its most recent Microsoft Ignite 2020 conference heavily touted Power Apps as a low-code platform for building applications on top of the Microsoft Office 365 suite of cloud applications based on Excel, Word and PowerPoint personal productivity applications. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is making the case for Honeycode, a cloud service currently in beta that enables end users to build custom applications using spreadsheet formulas without having to share large volumes of spreadsheet data. The data already resides in the cloud, which makes it possible to use no-code tools to build an application.
That approach should enable IT organizations to reduce the application development backlog they have by making it simpler for end users to create applications that have an interface they already know how to navigate, says Larry Augustin, a vice president at AWS.
"It's a familiar spreadsheet metaphor," says Augustin.
Business processes still based on spreadsheets
Most business processes today still revolve around spreadsheets. Microsoft obviously has the inside track when it comes to driving adoption of a new generation of tools for building applications on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet application that is a de facto standard.
Of course, as organizations shift to the cloud many of them will at the very least consider their options. As more data migrates to the cloud the more compelling it might become to employ a platform that runs on the same platform where most of the organization's data is already stored. The forces of data gravity, after all, have never been stronger than they are in the age of the cloud.
In the meantime, organizations of all sizes have accelerated digital business transformation initiatives in the wake of the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Delivering new applications that have a spreadsheet-based interface could help minimize disruption by minimizing the amount of time it might take for end users to master a new application. Despite advances in business intelligence (BI) applications, the most widely employed application among business users other than Microsoft Word is a spreadsheet. Rather than force a major cultural change, the path of least resistance when it comes to digital business transformation is in many cases going to be through a spreadsheet interface most end users already know how to navigate.
Regardless of the path forward, low-code and no-code tools are already being widely embraced as organizations look to accelerate digital business transformation initiatives. Less clear is how those applications might manifest themselves. However, chances are good that a familiar spreadsheet interface is going to be one of the more popular options.