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Rethinking the Spreadsheet: Google Forms and Live Data

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Google recently announced a new feature: forms. By combining spreadsheets with bulk e-mail, the new function (which was revealed on the Google Docs blog) lets a spreadsheet author send out a mail with fields for recipients to fill in. As they do, the spreadsheet gets completed. It’s a real-time survey that pumps data straight into a spreadsheet. It’s also another example of the difference between desktop software and web-based applications.

Google does a great job of re-thinking basic applications when they live online, something traditional software vendors seem to have a hard time doing. In an earlier release, for example, they added functions like =ImportFeed (to pull data in from an RSS feed) and =GoogleFinance (to pull data in from Google’s financial tracking site.)

A few functions like this, and Google turns any spreadsheet-literate user into a web services developer.

By contrast, consider Windows Mobile. If I have a spreadsheet full of phone numbers, I should be able to select a number and dial it. But the Mobile version of Excel is so true to the original, it doesn’t think about data in the context of being a phone. So I have to manually copy the number to the clipboard, create a new contact with that number, and dial it.

We don’t need web-based versions of our desktop software. We need web software that takes advantage of being online.

13 Responses to “Rethinking the Spreadsheet: Google Forms and Live Data”

  1. The potential of Google forms linked to spreadsheets is unbelievable.
    I’ve been dreaming of this since Google announced web-based applications.

    TEACHERS: Listen Up!

    I’m a math teacher. I can set up homework assignments via a Google form and email them to my students. Their responses can AUTOMATICALLY be checked and the assignment graded.
    The results of the assignment can then be posted to a website (with an embedded read-only Google spreadsheet).

    Here are just a few of the benefits:
    1. No more assignments to copy and pass out.
    2. No more excuses of ‘I forgot to take my book home’.
    3. No papers to collect.
    4. No papers to grade.
    5. No papers to pass back.
    6. Permanent electronic copy of a grade book (the Google spreadsheet).
    7. 24/7 access to scores and overall grade for students.
    8. Easily differentiated assignments (sent to selected students)
    9. (Teacher can) Build into the form, website assistance links e.g., the teacher’s own website.

    I cannot wait for summer to begin re-engineering all my lessons to go online and paperless.

    I Love You Google! You will save America’s public education system. Keep up the good work!

  2. I guess I’ll choose my metaphors more carefully next time; but the point remains — when developing an app, consider the platform and how it could change the functionality.

    Windows Mobile has all kinds of issues. One of the ones I encountered most recently was this: Vista has contacts, and Vista has calendars. Vista also has a tool that connects to Windows Mobile. But Windows Mobile can’t synchronize with Windows Vista contacts.

    For that, you need Outlook.

    At least Microsoft can kill its sacred cows — considering the Danger acquisition — but this is as good an indicator as any of how the Windows Mobile platform will compete against the Blackberry while the Danger competes against the iPhone.

    Which, of course, already synchronizes properly. Sigh.

  3. Jesse Kopelman

    The Mobile Excel example may not be a good illustration of what’s right about Google’s approach, but it is an excellent illustration of what’s wrong with Windows Mobile. This particular issue has frustrated me many times. When people e-mail out contact lists, they usually aren’t embedded in some sort of table inside the e-mail (which Mobile Outlook usually can’t read, anyway), they are in an excel attachment. There wouldn’t be so much interest in various incarnations of Linux for the smartphone if MS weren’t so lazy in their development of Windows Mobile.

  4. Yes, in Access 2007 you can send an email around that people can fill out in Outlook and returning emails are automatically populated into the database

    Putting this in a spreadsheet? Just encouraging people to do database things in a place where they don’t get as many tools – if Google want to replace Excel as the universal data munging engine I’m not sure this is a step forward.

    And you don’t have to create a new contact; just paste the number into the Windows Mobile dialler. I do it all the time; for conference calls you can even paste the passcode.

  5. HTML forms in email was a patent dispute during the early days of the web. I’m not sure how it got resolved. A startup patented the email form concept after HTML email was created. As one of the people who worked on the HTML email spec we objected to the patents since HTML forms were one of the reasons HTML email was created in the first place. I think the start up died before lawyers got too involved. It’s been ten years and I’ve forgotten the startup’s name. Let’s hope those patents aren’t in the hands of a troll now.

  6. An ideal app, from my point of view, would be filling out a webpage form and having it automatically added to a spreadsheet.

    We could than rummage through the spreadsheet (data mine) to find info of interest.

    There may be a hint of that feature already, but it is not readily evident.

  7. I think you’ve made some valid points, but you’ve also confused some issues. I don’t think the Windows Mobile example works for two reasons — you’re talking about making traditional desktop apps work in new contexts, not just the web, in the phone number example. Also, I’m far more likely to get and want to call phone numbers out of emails than a spreadsheet, and for this Windows Mobile and Pocket Outlook are good at identifying potential phone numbers in emails (even when they use dashes or periods), and automatically creating a link that lets me simply click-to-dial.

    Google is good at web-ifying traditionally desktop apps, and really it is better than many of the other big players at doing so. I don’t think your main point is invalidated by this, but I want to point out there’s counter-examples and other issues involved.