You know an electronic spreadsheet is the right tool for your need, but you’re not sure which of the available products to choose. Two prominent options are suggested: Google Spreadsheets and Microsoft Excel. Let’s make it easier for you

First, let’s consider your requirements. The following list will help us frame the discussion:

  • Do you need multiple users to concurrently work on the solution, or can one person at a time exclusively work on it?
  • Do you need pixel-perfect visual design with wide flexibility over fonts, colors, forms design etc.?
  • Does the solution needs to be available on the Internet, or on your local network/PC?
  • Do you need the solution to interface, or exchange data, with other software? Think about data imported/exported, emails fired or analyzed by your solution, databases you will connect with and the like
  • Are you “Microsoft” oriented, or “Google” oriented? What is the main digital environment and operating system your business is based on: is it a local network based on MS-Windows/Mac or is it Google for Work/G Suite?

If you already have answers to these questions, you’ll probably have an answer in 5 minutes.

When considering your options, always try to understand the concept and principles guiding the design of the solution at hand. Microsoft Excel (along with the complete Office suite) was designed for the Desktop world[1]. Google was designed for the Internet.

Excel is an application stored locally on your Desktop. Your Excel file as well. They’re both loaded into your Desktop memory when you want to use them. The computing (or logic) takes place typically in your Desktop’s processors and the data is stored with your Excel file (in most cases). In short, we’re talking about a Desktop Application.

Google Spreadsheets is an application stored on Google servers. So is your Google Spreadsheet file. Most computing and processes are being sent to Google servers for execution and all data is stored … exactly: on Google servers. Google is designed as a Web Application.

With that in mind, let us consider these options against your requirements.

Single player or a team game?

If you need strong concurrency support, meaning, more than one user needs to actually work on the file at the same time, each updating his own area (for example) – in most cases, Google is your answer. Microsoft attempts to position Excel Online (part of the Office 365 suite) as an alternative, but it doesn’t even come close. Why? Because the foundation remains a Desktop application, however sharing your Excel file on the cloud (Internet) for others to open concurrently. Not only does it pail in comparison with a native Web Application, the awkward attempt to take a rich Desktop application and render it in a web browser skims off major pillars of Excel, such as VBA (Macro) support and sheets/cells protection, to name a couple. Other limitations include latency, an inevitable result when your trick is to render a desktop application in a browser, meaning response may be delayed as you’re working with the file.

If all you need is to have the file shared on a central storage for multiple people to grab or just open it for viewing only (not updating), then Microsoft Excel could still remain a valid option.

Bottom line: if you need concurrency, and your business requirements are more than a basic Excel table, more or less, Google is your choice.

The devil is in the pixel

If concurrency is not a requirement and you need a fine-tuned and flexible user experience, rich in visual effects and options, fast to render on the screen and a “Windows” like feel – most probably Microsoft Excel would be your choice. It’s pretty obvious that Google does not have a slick visual design as their first priority, whereas Microsoft has this built into their DNA. This has also to do with the inherent limitations of Web Applications as compared with native Desktop applications. While there are technologies that allows improved visual effects in browsers, they are not yet instilled into the design of Web Applications, for reasons beyond the scope of this article.

Bottom line: If fast, beautiful and “Windows” like experience is important – put the weight in for Microsoft Excel.

Protect the environment

Let us now consider your digital environment and orientation. Google will natively interface with your other Google assets, such as Google Docs, Google Drive, Gmail, etc. If your business is run on Google (with a Google for Work account, for example), it may be easier for you to exchange data and connect everything together. Google Script (think equivalent of Excel Macros) offers extensive programming libraries to glue all pieces together fairly easy.

Exchanging files (such as text, or CSV files) with other Desktop application on your network/PC (MS-Outlook included) on the other hand, is very easy with your Desktop application. Automating Excel with Macros is done with Microsoft’s VBA programming language, which opens up a rich library of programs to interface with all others Microsoft applications, including Windows services (or Apple Script on a Mac) and thousands 3rd party solutions designed for Windows that offer their interfacing libraries.

Bottom line: your digital environment and interfacing needs will add to the weight of your decision, either way.

Still find it difficult to map your business requirements to the right tool? We’re here to help!

[1] For convenience, I refer to local networks, PCs and Laptops as “Desktop” to keep things short