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Next generation spreadsheet apps
"Everything Starts Out Looking Like a Toy" (No. 48)
This week’s toy: a browser-based exploration game where you can virtually walk through an animated forest. Is this the future of internet navigation? Maybe not, but it’s cool. Edition No. 48 of this newsletter is here - it’s June 19, 2021.
The Big Idea
Familiar Ideas, New Interfaces
When a spreadsheet becomes the gateway to the entire internet, is it still a spreadsheet? This week I read Tyler Robertson’s brilliant essay on creating a game in Google Sheets and am seeing a tipping point. What we call a “spreadsheet” today is really a new way of structuring, calculating, searching, and retrieving information. Put another way, the next generation of applications will not look like applications.
The Just In Time version of applications will provide in-context help within a spreadsheet.
The Just In Time version of applications will bring information overlay and calculation to any application.
The Just In Time version of applications will make almost any existing application into a microservice.
Just In Time Applications
At this point, you might be wondering what this means. Traditional applications - starting with mainframes, and continuing to more recent versions of applications that you install on your computer or run in your browser - rely on local data, local functions, and local computing power. Internet applications extend this ability to reach out from the application to other applications or websites. Just In Time applications invert this logic by bringing the power of any internet-enabled application (with the right credentials and access, of course) to a familiar place, like a spreadsheet.
The icon pictured above looks like a phone, but your pocket handheld computer (that was once created from the outgrowth of a phone) does so much more. And we’re going to be doing that same transformation in other familiar places. But the change is going to be jarring. So the best place to gradually make changes will be in the context of things we already know.
Spreadsheets are boring. We all use them every day without knowing very much about them. However, they are a gateway to a sophisticated programming environment and have the ability to send and receive structured data. This is a programmer’s dream: a sandboxed canvas in which to create information, request and store information, and find information on a schedule. In addition, modern spreadsheets like Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel have sophisticated access and authorization models built into the domains that host these spreadsheets so you don’t have to worry about building these features.
Spreadsheets that house Just-In-Time applications can be so much more than spreadsheets. Imagine if the next time you are working on a financial model, you could search for the function that you needed to answer your common question. You could absolutely do this today, and there is a significant lift to search the right question, find an answer that calculates correctly, and then apply it to your model of choice so that it just works. Spreadsheets have awesome building blocks but their grammar to create applications is poor.
What’s a model to find and build these applications?
The structure is not there yet to collaborate and build function libraries into spreadsheets that are vetted, validated, and accurate. But it’s coming. Tyler’s post shows that you can do amazing things in Google Sheets if you have the skills. So now this information needs to be easier to find and implement for the average user who opens a spreadsheet and wonders, “how do I transform daily data into a month over month comparison and graph it for my slide?” or any one of a million other similar questions.
What’s the takeaway? Spreadsheets (and applications) will be unlocked when we discover how to create and collaborate on function libraries that “just work” instead of relying on systems like Google search and Stack Overflow links.
A Thread from This Week
Twitter is an amazing source of long-form writing, and it’s easy to miss the threads people are talking about.
This week’s thread: if you subscribe to HBOMax, you got that email. Sent by an intern. Here’s another story about a mistake that compounded, as we all make them.
Links for Reading and Sharing
These are links that caught my eye.
1/ Google Sheet as Simple Database - Here’s how to store and retrieve data from Google sheets as JSON. Why should you care? It’s a simple backend you could use for a hobby website, or for prototyping. And it’s a clever trick.
2/ The Right To Repair - Cory Doctorow details what’s involved in the right to repair. Why is this important? As our devices (and automobiles) become more tech-oriented, we need to retain the ability to fix them … and not just respond to the automated repair codes these devices do or don’t share with us.
3/ On Product Thinking - “Product-Led Growth” is a popular term right now, indicating the need to drive behavior that reinforces usage and retention. But what is product thinking? It’s a mindset that prioritizes thinking about how people (real people, not imaginary personas) use the products that they love.
On the Reading/Watching List
Disney and Pixar have a new movie out that’s a literal “fish out of water” story. It looks beautiful. The animation nerd in me is very appreciative of the textures and lighting you can see in the trailer.
What to do next
Hit reply if you’ve got links to share, data stories, or want to say hello.
I’m grateful you read this far. Thank you. If you found this useful, consider sharing with a friend.
The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.” - Chris Dixon