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Time And Punishment

Homer Creates a Perfect World… 
Except it Has no Donuts

Imagine a modern world without spreadsheets

Here’s a story I find myself telling a lot these days:  imagine a world in which all of today’s technology exists except spreadsheets.  In that world, we have all of the computing hardware, software, and networking of 2011, but for some reason, spreadsheets have just never been invented.

That would be a very interesting place, and very different from our world.  The evolution of the spreadsheet and the evolution of the PC are largely the same story in our world – they both spread in parallel, starting in the early 1980’s.  It took about 10 years for both to become common in the workplace, with each one driving adoption of the other.

Release the hounds (of Excel 2000)!

Now imagine that suddenly, Microsoft released Excel into that world.  (Or Lotus released 1-2-3).  And not version one of Excel, but something like Excel 2000 or later.

Here’s what I think would happen:

1) It would take time for spreadsheets to reach broad adoption.  People would need to hear about this new invention.  They would need to comprehend the value they offer.  They’d need to overcome their natural skepticism about the latest “next best thing.”  And they’d need to learn how to use them.

2) But it would NOT take as long as it did in the 1980’s.  Remember, the PC itself wasn’t widely adopted when spreadsheets were first invented, and that was a big impediment to their adoption.  But in our 2011 imaginary world, the PC is already everywhere – a world primed for more rapid adoption.

3) The early adopters would enjoy a tremendous advantage.  It would seem like magic to them.  Their competitive advantages would dwarf those enjoyed by the early adopters of the 1980’s.  The CPU and RAM of 2011 desktop hardware combined with the advanced feature set of even Excel 2000 would deliver a transformational capability.

OK, so what’s the point of this thought experiment?

PowerPivot’s Release in 2010 is Just as Impactful

The #1 reason why I’ve been telling that story above is this: I think PowerPivot’s impact on today’s world will eventually be judged to be as every bit as big as the invention of spreadsheets themselves.

Now, as Vincent Vega would say, that’s a bold statement.  But you have to consider the source here (me) – I’m not a Microsoft fanboy.  My employment at Microsoft over 13 years jaded me more than stoking my religion.  In fact, in the “ask the experts” session this weekend at SharePoint Saturday, I was clearly the most cynical panelist.  (Come see me in person to see what I’m talking about).

So when someone like me says something bold like that, I encourage you to pay attention.  I was NOT saying (or expecting) that degree of impact when I was at MS, and I was not saying it when I started this blog.  It’s really just been the past year – after many months of seeing it for myself.

The Magic Eyedropper:  How PowerPivot is Spreading

How about speed of adoption?  I think it’s going to be just like Excel 2000 landing on our imaginary world.  There’s another relevant thought experiment that I love, but I didn’t come up with this one.  Here it is, copy/pasted from another website:

Suppose I had a magic eye dropper and I placed a single drop of water in the middle of your left hand. The magic part is that this drop of water is going to double in size every minute.

At first nothing seems to be happening, but by the end of a minute, that tiny drop is now the size of two tiny drops.  After another minute, you now have a little pool of water that is slightly smaller in diameter than a dime sitting in your hand.  After six minutes, you have a blob of water that would fill a thimble.

Now suppose we take our magic eye dropper to Fenway Park, and, right at 12:00 p.m. in the afternoon, we place a magic drop way down there on the pitcher’s mound.

To make this really interesting, suppose that the park is watertight and that you are handcuffed to one of the very highest bleacher seats.

My question to you is, “How long do you have to escape from the handcuffs?” When would it be completely filled? In days? Weeks? Months? Years? How long would that take?  I’ll give you a few seconds to think about it.

The answer is, you have until 12:49 on that same day to figure out how you are going to get out of those handcuffs. In less than 50 minutes, our modest little drop of water has managed to completely fill Fenway Park.

Now let me ask you this – at what time of the day would Fenway Park still be 93% empty space, and how many of you would realize the severity of your predicament?

Any guesses? The answer is 12:45. If you were squirming in your bleacher seat waiting for help to arrive, by the time the field is covered with less than 5 feet of water, you would now have less than 4 minutes left to get free.

I’ve recently seen traffic to this blog jump to double its longstanding average.  I’ve seen the post frequency on LinkedIn quadruple.  Incoming requests for HostedPowerPivot have also quadrupled.  Every metric like that is telling a similar story.

Is it 12:45 yet?  Probably not.  But I’d say it’s around 12:30.

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. Rob,

    I agree with your first two points – if spreadsheets were introduced today, it would take a while for them to be broadly adopted, but not as long as in the 80s – but I have some differences of opinion about the impact of spreadsheets if they were just introduced in 2011.

    In the years since the introduction of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, other tools for data manipulation and analysis have been introduced to the market. If there had been no spreadsheets during those decades, more businesses and individuals would have bought and learned to use those tools. They would have invested heavily in developing processes and code tied to those products. And they wouldn’t be in a hurry to invest in replacements.

    The widespread availability of powerful computers at low cost would surely play in favor of adoption of the newly-invented spreadsheet. But the entrenched use of other products would cause resistance, so I doubt that spreadsheets would reach the same level of breadth and depth of use we see today.

    When VisiCalc was introduced in 1979, for most users it provided a huge early adopter advantage, since the competition was either pencil and paper, calculators or programming using a language such as BASIC or COBOL. Today, though, there are hundreds of alternatives. There would be advantages for some users in some situations, but not nearly the dramatic impact that led to VisiCalc’s rise as the first Killer App.

    1. Thanks Meta. Of course, this is a thought experiment only, not a real one. So alternative tools were kinda assumed to also be “not invented.”

      Even so, however, I think it’s difficult to argue that the calculation capabilities of a spreadsheet – a grid of cells where the user can see, “geographically,” the steps in a calculation – is a successful meme purely because of “first mover” advantage. I think that model has been tested many times over the years, and always comes out as the champion in terms of broad adoption, even if not abstractly “the best.”

      Think of the revolutions we’ve seen purely in that space alone – VisiCalc giving way to Lotus, the introduction of Quattro, the switch from keyboard-oriented UI to GUI, and the subsequent rise to dominance of Excel. At each “turnover” in that process, existing users had to give up their existing comfort zone in order to adopt to the new. Those transitions are a natural “attach point” for alternate technologies, and at each turn, the “grid of cells” emerged victorious. I don’t think that’s because of momentum, I think it’s because the grid of cells is, to date, the most widely adoptable numerical programming metaphor. Normal people – those folks who didn’t study something like Math or CompSci or CogPsy in college – simply love the grid.

      Sure there are better visualization tools, but we have to be careful when we say “better.” We must remember that Excel is not a visualization tool – it is a calculation tool with some visualization capabilities built in. The abstract calc capabilities of pure “data vis” tools can certainly become popular with the intelligentsia, but I’m pretty sure the grid would come along and supplant them with the masses. There have been plenty of attempts to beat back the grid – even Lotus tried it with Improv, and it attracted a cult following but did not reach broad adoption. We could argue that Improv was “better” perhaps, but broad adoption is the ultimate barometer we are talking about here.

      I’m surfing a fine line here for sure, because one of the benefits of PowerPivot, the one I call “portable formulas,” is realized only because the calculations actually ARE divorced from the grid. That plays out in an incremental fashion however, and on first use the user CAN view it as still happening in the grid, and only on advanced usage does it become critical for them to mentally detach from the grid. This approach eases them in, and at least offers the opportunity for a smooth transition away from the security blanket of the grid, rather than all at once. (Actually I would argue that the lack of a clear demarcation in DAX, when you cross that rubicon, is actually one of the usability challenges that could use some attention, but we’re in a MUCH better ballpark than tools that dispose of the grid immediately).

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