Today I would like to discuss a boring subject: Spreadsheets. Actually it’s not that boring when you come to think of it. At least I’m going to try not to make it boring. Let me set something straight first: Spreadsheets are not just about numbers; they are about data. You may have already read Michael Meeks’ article on LibreOffice’s major rewrite of its spreadsheet engine (the much famed Ixion engine that was alluded to first in 2010) and indeed this is a major development for LibreOffice and ultimately for office suites in general – I’ll come back to that later- but this post is not an appreciation article for Michael and Kohei, it’s about how we think of spreadsheets, why we tend to think of them in a very limited way, and how we could redefine the uses of LibreOffice Calc.
There is something wrong with spreadsheets. We tend to think of them as tools to calculate and handle numbers and measures of various kinds. For many people, spreadsheets equal accounting and budget. Of course, these are tasks spreadsheets are perfectly meant for. Ultimately however, the key to spreadsheets is not their ability to perform two basic roles, display numbers and manipulate them. It is to extract meaning and data from these numbers and to manipulate this data to make other patterns emerge. This crucial point tends to be somewhat forgotten, yet it is something users do on a daily basis, although pretty often in a limited way.
There are two reasons for this. We often think of office suites as a set of predefined scenarios: the word processor is used for a letter. The spreadsheet is for accounting. Presentation software is for shiny slides where people write countless points and sentences all over the place so that no one understands anything. RIP Steve Jobs. But I digress. The point here is that we tend to copy usage, but hardly think of the software we use as a tool. The second reason may well lie in the inherent limitations of the tool itself and the information system in which the tool – the spreadsheet – operates.
The latter point is fortunately about to change. LibreOffice ships a rewritten Calc engine that is able to churn data faster, better, partly thanks to a brand new design and partly by relying on GPUs instead of the good old CPU power. What does it mean to us? It means that we are going to be able to interact with much bigger volumes of data and do more with it than with any other spreadsheet software out there. I’m not about to blow the horn by claiming that LibreOffice Calc is now more powerful than Excel – it is true in a certain sense but the assertion is too bold if it’s not a detailed claim- but what I’m trying to say is that we should stop thinking of LibreOffice Calc as a nice me-too spreadsheet module inside LibreOffice and that we ougt to realize that spreadsheet software is fundamentaly about data and its representation.
A false, yet commonly admitted notion is that a spreadsheet is just some sort of table, or group of tables, called sheets. It is not. In fact, you can have tables inside a document opened by a word processor, but it will be different from a spreadsheet. Tables inside a document, inside Writer or elsewhere (emacs, MS Word, etc.) have no “intelligence”. They are just tables, with rows and columns. Spreadsheets have rows and colums too, but they also have cells that can be identified as resources, objects, and specific data sets. The same goes with rows and columns. It is possible to perform all sorts of actions based on the data that has been entered in cells, and this data can be processed elsewhere on the spreadsheets, such as in a different cells. It is possible to create representations of this data directly inside the spreadsheet, be it with specific markings, with operations on the data set (performing calculations with mathematical formulas for instance) or draw a fully visual chart of the data available on the spreadsheet. One thing which is now possible with LibreOffice Calc is the ability to stream and update the data existing inside the spreadsheet from and to different places such as the Internet. Where LibreOffice Calc shines though is in its ability to manage this data and perform complex operations on it. At the end of the day, LibreOffice Calc lets you achieve an unprecedented ability to manipulate data and to represent it in a clear and compelling way. By doing so, Calc is getting a bit closer to some types of databases but still retains its fundamental uses and purposes.
While this may not appeal to you if all you’re looking for is to define your monthly budget based on your income and expenses, this increased power and capacity appeals to several different kinds of users, such as universities, mathematicians, financial research, etc. But let’s move away from these number-intensive scenarios for a short while. Did you know you could use LibreOffice Calc to perform task management ? To-do lists? Track the progress of a project? In these cases, numbers may be involved, but so are words, concepts and ideas. Calc can be configured to manage projects and teams and will do that very well, by representing the project and team’s data, tasks and deadlines in a compelling and synthetic way. I was about to finish but talking about time tracking, did you know you could use LibreOffice Calc as a perpetual calendar? No? And what about the Football world cup in Brazil this year? We could not forget that, so Klaibson Ribeiro of the Brazilian project came up with the definitive team and matches chart for the world cup. And he did this with LibreOffice Calc!