I recently conducted a test to see how several online spreadsheets handled advanced Microsoft Excel functions and features. One of the key problems that I see in the use of online spreadsheets is their compatibility with advanced Microsoft Excel features (like Visual Basic for Applications macros, PivotTables, and Lookup Tables.)
Many people are so-called “power users” of Excel, myself being one of them. If online spreadsheets are not able to 1) import existing Excel files or 2) recreate advanced Excel functionality, I believe there will be a long and potentially delayed adoption process.
I then imported the file into the following four online spreadsheet programs; Google Docs, ThinkFree, Zoho, and Sheetster. I would have also tried the new Microsoft Web Apps, but it is not fully functional at this time.
I imported into Google Docs first. In order to open the document, it had to be converted to Google’s format. Once it was converted, all of the data imported fine and Google’s interface is nice and clean.
Of the three advanced features I imported, only of them worked properly – the Lookup Table. The PivotTable imported only as text and the VBA Macros were non-existent. This was pretty disappointing to me considering all the hype that has been present around Google Docs. If Google Docs is not even able to import or support PivotTables or Macros, I don’t see myself switching to Google Docs anytime soon.
In Google’s defense, they do have several add-ons that could probably replicate PivotTables (I didn’t look into them) and you can create new customized macros using Java scripts. The problem is – I don’t have time nor want to learn a new programming language to make all of my old Excel spreadsheets compatible with Google, it’s just too much work.
ThinkFree has the most “Office-like” Excel feel of the four programs tested. The drop down menus and file menu items are very similar in naming and appearance to that of Excel 2003. This is very nice if you are migrating from Excel and are looking for something familiar.
Even though the user interface was probably the best of the four online spreadsheets, the functionality was really not much better than Google Docs. The only advanced feature that worked was the Lookup Table. Both the PivotTable and the VBA macros did not work – just like Google Docs. In addition, ThinkFree was a little slow in loading.
Of the four online programs, I liked Zoho the best. It offered a feel that was intuitive and similar to Microsoft Excel 2003. It wasn’t as similar as ThinkFree, but I don’t think anyone would have a problem figuring out how to use the program.
When I imported the Excel test file, I was pleasantly surprised to see a macro feature that was compatible with Excel VBA macros. It was also nice to see that Zoho had functionality for PivotTable, which both ThinkFree and Google Docs did not.
Although Zoho had the most functions, it still was not a seamless import. Although Zoho supports PivotTable functionality, it still did not bring them in automatically. You basically had to create a new PivotTable and store it in a different worksheet. It was not able to support PivotTables on the same worksheet as the data. The VBA macros also worked well, but only for simple macros. I noticed that it did not work well for VBA functions.
Sheetster was by far the least sophisticated of all of the online spreadsheets I evaluated as part of this test. The user interface was really nothing special and it did not import any of the features well or even at all. I think that Sheetster will be relinquished to a niche market that will only be used by a small population.
Google Docs has a nice, clean user interface and a plethora of options, but lacked functionality. ThinkFree offered the best user interface, but was not able to incorporate the advanced features. Sheetster lacks the sophistication of the other three and is probably more for niche applications. Microsoft Web Apps was not tested at this point because it has not been officially released.
Based on my experiences, the clear winner of the online spreadsheets is Zoho. Although it did not have the best user interface, it still is easy to use, intuitive, and offers superior functionality for advanced applications over all of the other programs. In addition, it was fast and has a growing user base.
Let me be clear though, I still think that all online spreadsheets have some catching up to do before they can truly compete with a desktop version of Excel…at least for now.
If anyone has other experiences with these programs, please leave a comment. It would be great to have a discussion on this!
Online Alternatives to Microsoft Office