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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Spreadsheet Monkeyshines

I helped out a friend with a spreadsheet. The outfit she worked for had upgraded their laptops to the latest and greatest version of Excel. What a painful experience. It is like opening the door to the control room of a nuclear power plant (or the cab of a steam locomotive). There are more bells and whistles than you can shake a stick at. I am sure that someone finds all these new features useful. I am also sure I really do not want to know about any of it. All I want is to make some updates to an old spreadsheet, close it up and go watch TV, or drink beer, or something, you know, useful.

The biggest problem, and I have to admit is probably not Excel's doing, is the way the spreadsheet slides around when I drag my finger across the touchpad. I want to move the cursor somewhere so I can click on something, and everything I was working on disappears and I am now on column UXQ and row 9 zillion. I tried deleting some columns to see if that would help, but no. Excel supports 16,000 columns, and as near as I can tell you get them all whether you want them or not. I finally struck on the idea of freezing some panes. Put the cursor in the lower right most cell and click on Freeze Panes. It's on one of the menus at the top of the screen, or is it the top of the window? I have forgotten. Actually, I am not sure I ever knew. I just looked through them all until I found the one I wanted. In any case this locked the portion of the spreadsheet I was working on in place. It actually contained all my data and the graph. We are talking about a fairly small data set here, fewer than a hundred items.

After that it was much easier to make the actual changes that were required. Of course easier is a relative term. This is the new Excel, and everything has been improved. Yeah, right. As far as I am concerned all they did was change the way everything works, so you have to figure out how to do what you want all over again. I just did this same thing last year.

On one hand I can understand software developers trying out new and different things. This whole computer thing is still pretty new. Who knows? Somebody might stumble on a new concept for a user interface that is a real breakthrough. On the other hand, having to spend two hours trying to figure out how the new stuff works so you can make some changes that would have taken fifteen minutes with the old stuff that you already knew how to use is counter-productive.

There are two trends in consumer software these days that I find irritating, useless and/or stupid:
  • Social networking. Look at all the ways you can share your life with complete strangers.
  • Super slick animated desktops. Look at the way I can pan and scroll with a flick of my finger. Never mind where I land, look at how cool it looks.
I am thinking we need two kinds of software. One kind that is full of gimicks and another that lets you get on with your job. Actually, these two kinds probably already exist. The first one is what you get on consumer devices. The other you have to actually seek out.

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