back to article A certain millennial turned 30 recently: Welcome to middle age, Microsoft Excel v2

Thirty is a ripe old age, maybe older than a good chunk of Register readers. Even for those of you for whom Excel is a spring chicken, how many applications or even operating systems are you still using of a similar age outside the Office suite? Is Windows 10 the same OS as Windows 2.0? Is that still your grandfather's axe, …

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  1. Korev Silver badge
    1. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Gene

      You called?

    2. I_am_Chris

      Re: Gene

      Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Despite this paper, the number of scientists that are blithely unaware of these problems is frightening.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Out of all the applications I use excel has got to be the one that has saved me the most time.

    I cut my teeth in C++ then taught myself VBA and my how powerful is it? I can manipulate data left right and centre, I can reference dll's and get it to control other applications. I can jump into any other vba program and work from there if I want.

    On the downside I've seen some bloody awful coding over the years that takes you days just to figure out what the hell someone was trying to do. Macro's and variables without any meaningful names, references to macros that reference other macros for no point and hidden global variables that make where's wally(waldo) look shit at hide and seek.

    If you ever use Excel VBA then one piece of advice I would offer is "Can you do it in a formula?" because 8 times out of 10 you are wasting your time writing a macro.

    I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      There have been times when I've thought to myself "I should be doing this in SQL".

      Now that I use an OS that Excel doesn't support, I think to myself "I'm glad I don't need Excel".

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        "Now that I use an OS that Excel doesn't support"

        I'd guess Libre Office 'Calc' will do what you need, yeah.

        On a semi-related note, has anyone ELSE observed that the Windows 2.x screenshots with Excel 2.0 in the article look WAY TOO MUCH like 2D FLATSO Win-10-nic ? Just wanted to point that out. Yes, I am _COMPELLED_ to do so.

        Of course, "that" look+feel was based on Windows 1.0, even 2D'er and FLATSO-er than 2.x [but at least the colors weren't all 'shades of grey'].

    2. Gio Ciampa

      "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

      Improvements are still due

      This may be a case of my misusing it...

      ...but have you ever tried applied a formula to tens (or hundreds) of thousands of rows...

      ...then waited an age for it to figure out what it's doing? (Even on a modern 8 core "business" laptop)?

      That bit I can live with... just about...

      ...but what boils my piss is the fact that if you then try to interact at all with it... it starts the whole bloody calculation again (or so it appears)!

      This has happened in versions I've used over the last decade or more ... sort it out MS!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

        @AC

        You know what, you make an extremely valid point. I have transferred a lot of what I have done over the years to SQL because it makes sense however there were other occasions where it didn't. Excel still has it's place though because of what it can do in it's own ecosystem. Where else could I take raw data out of a database, manipulate it, get crystal reports to create the report and then email it all automatically with the click of a button?

        @Gio Ciampa

        Turn off auto-calculation and use F9 to calculate. This goes back to my response above, there are things you can but should not do in excel and from the sound of what you are describing it should not be done in excel. Personally I join multiple systems into a database and then create report data which is then used to generate the reports via excel, the grunt work has already been done and takes about an hour. I could have done it all in excel but that would just add a ridiculous amount of time to the process. I don't think I've come across a calculation you can't replicate in SQL though I'm probably wrong.

      2. Field Commander A9

        Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

        "...then waited an age for it to figure out what it's doing? (Even on a modern 8 core "business" laptop)?"

        "business" laptops have SHIT CPUs (and even shittier cooling), no matter how many cores they've got. You need a mobile workstation (or at the very least a gaming laptop) to do proper number crunching.

      3. Toolman83

        Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

        Uhh, you can turn off "auto calculate" since at least version 4

        (maybe before, that was the first one I used, and turning it off was sometimes needed with a large worksheet on a 486)

        There is even a button in the calculate group that does it these days!

        1. BongoJoe
          Mushroom

          Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

          Trouble is that the Autocalculate option turns itself on just for the fun of it every now and then.

          Sometimes it's because I've opened a spreadsheet constructed by someone else and,sometimes, because Excel bloody well feels like it and I wonder why my machine seems to have stopped dead for a few minutes.

          I wish that the sodding thing would stay off when turned off.

        2. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge

          Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

          >Uhh, you can turn off "auto calculate" since at least version 4

          >(maybe before, that was the first one I used, and turning it off was sometimes needed with a large worksheet on a 486)

          Version 1.

          Used to be pretty much compulsory for large multi-file linked spreadsheet models (back before workbooks got invented (v4, made the default fileformat in v5), on your creaking 8MHz Mac Plus.

          Which, for actual USER interaction (rather than processing), ran faster than the latest i7s on Windows 7+/MacOSX 10.4+ ...

      4. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

        "but what boils my piss is the fact that if you then try to interact at all with it... it starts the whole bloody calculation again (or so it appears)!"

        a) Learn to use the software properly, and turn off automatic sheet recalculation. Just because the software makes it all look "dead simps" doesn't mean you can get clever without doing some reading of the manual. See: post #1 in this thread.

        2) Are you sure you ae using the right tool for the right job? Hundreds of thousands of rows? This isn't what spreadsheets are for. You can make them work that way, but the user experience is a diminishing returns calculation inversely proportional to the data density.

      5. John Watts

        Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

        >it starts the whole bloody calculation again

        Turn off automatic calculation and then get it to update when you've done what you need to. Just remember you've turned off automatic calculation before you start swearing at the screen ...

      6. Mark 65 Silver badge

        Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

        @Gio Ciampa: You sound like you have fallen into one of the many traps of the less experience Excel user. Part of the art of using Excel is knowing the pitfalls. Typical use within banks for calculating complex derivatives will make use of a crappy little calculate button and having auto calculate turned off. The code behind the custom button with manually re-calculate the workbook by processing the worksheets in a set order to optimise the time taken.

        Also, unless using solver or performing repeated what-if iterations I'd recommend using something like R with the data.table library for large data sets or Python. Either of these can be used separately or through XLL add-ins. The advantage being the separation of code from data - something that is the bane of every expert brought in to fix Excel issues.

        1. Pompous Git Silver badge
          Pint

          Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

          "The advantage being the separation of code from data - something that is the bane of every expert brought in to fix Excel issues."
          That was the big advantage of Lotus Improv; the cells contained data, but the formulae were separate and referred to named ranges of cells.

          Have an upvote.

          1. Peter Quirk

            Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

            FCS EPS was a pre-PC spreadsheet that separated logic from data.

            Improv's "everything is a pivot table" concept was confusing at first. I think Microsoft's got pivot tables right after seeing what Lotus did.

      7. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge

        Re: "I have to say Excel is one thing Microsoft got right."

        >...but have you ever tried applied a formula to tens (or hundreds) of thousands of rows...

        Yes. Frequently. Not a problem. Possibly you have a RAM shortage courtesy of a later version of Windows?

        regardless:

        > ...but what boils my piss is the fact that if you then try to interact at all with it... it starts the whole bloody calculation again (or so it appears)!

        Solution:

        switch off automatic calculation.

        When you want it updated, press F9 (="Calculate Now"). In VBA, "=CalculateNow()"

    3. Tom Paine Silver badge

      I cut my teeth in C++ then taught myself VBA

      My god, how bad must VS C++ be that VBA is a pleasant change?!

      I shouldn't complain - it was the 20 months grinding out VBA that brought home to me just how fantabulous Perl is.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Hell no, it was Borland though I have used VS. These days I potter around in any language I choose, the principles are similar mainly the syntax that changes.

      2. BongoJoe

        VBA is massively underrated.

        In the spreadsheet that I am using day in and day out, I couldn't have done the operation with formulae. But there can't be much that can be done in C++ that can't be done in VBA.

        One sheet I use most days is something that I have knocked up which handles linked lists with tens of thousands of entries and has its own garbage collection built in. Doing stuff like that, without storing the data within a sheet, would be nigh on impossible and even if I used a worksheet to store the data rather than in a linked list I would perhaps still need VBA.

        If one treats VBA as Visual Basic 6 with $APPLICATION objects glued in (be it Excel, Word, Access, Powerpoint, etc) and writes proper code then it's rather good.

        Yes, one doesn't have all the fancy Object Oriented coding facilities offered to us that C++ does but it goes most of the way there, and I except that, but this doesn't mean that it's a bad language or should be taken out and shot.

        Like all languages there are people who abuse it or miscode and this gives the language a bad name whereas in actual fact it's the coder that's usually to blame.

        Some of my VBA applications are tens of thousands of lines long and they work perfectly. Yes, I could use a standalone language, as I do in some cases, and talk to $APPLICATION via COM. But then I've seen on these boards people saying that COM is also the spawn of the devil. Sigh

        There's nothing wrong with VBA apart from a few bits of OOP architecture missing but it's still a bloody good language.

    4. Old one

      MS missed the mark again

      Lucid 3D was far better program and advanced over MS Excell capabilities. BUT again MS marketing of an integrated program led to great sales and hence use. Just as DR Dos offered the Gem Desktop two years before Windows 1.0 and the 22 following revisions to overcome the blue screens of death that were fairly common in "those days".

      There were lots of open competition from various companies that created numerous excellent programs but they would not run without a operating system. Making the operating system quirky so that outside MS supplied programs had operating issues seemed to be part of the MS marketing plan. MS Dos had so many revisions for the first decade+ that for those who were experienced in other operating systems got very annoyed with the exorbitant time required to keep upgrading MS Dos.

      MS won by being the bull in a china shop -- making compatibility hard for any non MS programs. Still today when MS updates the OS how many experience issues with existing programs?

      Longing for Gary Kidall....

    5. FrancisKing
      Thumb Up

      Yeah,but

      Yeah, I like Excel and for many things it's my go to tool, but...

      It's annoying that Excel is single threaded. The user interface locks up when you're trying to do anything sizeable.

      There are also a few problems with large spreadsheets, which become unwieldy.

  3. Vimes

    There are too many VBA-filled spreadsheets out there to allow Excel to disappear any time soon.

    And I speak as somebody who regularly gets asked to update one such file for a client. This file has been around longer than I have, and I've been at my current employer more than 11 years now.

    I've also seen a general resistance to learning anything new or changing working practices - especially in the larger accounting firms (I'm guessing they probably don't want the additional training costs in terms of both time & money for so many people unless it's really necessary). This means you can easily end up with a situation where people end up sticking with what they know & are familiar with using.

    It may also be worth noting that whilst Libre Office supports macros it does so using its own language and not the same VBA that so many people are familiar with. A move to Libre Office would require a rewrite of those existing macros in files accountants are already using.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Accountancy firms don't use Excel. They may produce spreadsheets, but they certainly don't work with Excel.

      1. katrinab Silver badge
        WTF?

        "Accountancy firms don't use Excel."

        They use Excel for everything, regardless of whether it is the most suitable tool for the job.

        Writing letters, doing presentations, databases, calendars, maybe adding up a row of numbers on occasion. I've not seen anyone send emails or watch cat videos using it, but I'm sure it happens somewhere.

        1. Alistair Wall

          I have used Excel as a browser. Head office at a previous employer banned Firefox. Many sites were unreadable without ad blocking, but rendered without ads in Excel.

        2. Simon Harris Silver badge

          "everything..."

          Apparently you can even use it for instant messaging...

          https://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/09/08/slow_day_inspires_excelvba_instant_messaging_app/

        3. Nevermind
          Devil

          There is a big plc out there who use Excel for absolutely everything bar number crunching by the way I receive reports, reviews, document templates...because they find it easy to put text in a box I guess...let me tell you, it is f*ck*ng painful to have to read these 3 screen wide by 10 screen deep text efforts when really, it could have been done in (Agh)Word, or Writer or even Notepad, but NOT Excel.

          I bet they have CLAIT qualifications in it too...

          1. TheTick
            Angel

            "I bet they have CLAIT qualifications in it too..."

            As we all giggled to at school back in the day; you're not meant to add little words like "and" to acronyms so it should properly be CLI....you get the picture!

        4. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Unhappy

          "They use Excel for everything, regardless of whether it is the most suitable tool for the job."

          Second only behind Salespeople for tracking (basically) everything.

          That said when people look back on the history of computing I think they will find the spreadsheet was a more fundamental improvement than the word processor.

          Historically people in large organizations had ways to produce high quality documents with good layouts. What was much less common was being able to generate quick "what if" calculations or models. Basically there was no mathematical equivalent to the electric typewriter.

          Spreadsheets didn't just do this, they created a paradigm for structuring those problems into pieces that you didn't have to think about. Calculation on demand. When you want it, how you want it.

        5. bombastic bob Silver badge
          Linux

          They use Excel for everything

          "They use Excel for everything, regardless of whether it is the most suitable tool for the job."

          I would think it would be easy for them to migrate to Libre Office, and then Linux, because of that.

          1. Stevie Silver badge

            I would think it would be easy for them to migrate to Libre Office,

            Which shows how little you know about either product Bob.

      2. I'm Dugly

        Yes they do. My accountants would frequently request excel files, including exports from QuickBooks. If I or the accountants had a question it was simpler to send an excel file rather than create an accountant's copy in QB.

      3. Paul Woodhouse

        "Accountancy firms don't use Excel. They may produce spreadsheets, but they certainly don't work with Excel."

        WTF are you smoking... accountants are the WORST for inappropriate use of Excel, and they usually look utterly mystified when you do a facepalm as they show you the spreadsheet they've knocked up to record meeting action plans and stuff...

    2. Stevie Silver badge

      A move to Libre Office would require a rewrite (4 Vimes)

      Amen.

      Also a complete revision of finger memory, learned on Lotus 123, continued through Excel and abandoned in favor of, what, TELNET/EMACS/CLI keyboarding shortcuts.

      Why this was chosen beats the living daylights out of me, but if you want to zoom around a wide and/or deep sheet in one of the open "equivalents" and find data boundaries, you'll need a completely different set of shortcut finger habits than those the world leaders established when the OO/OL crowd were still crapping into their underwear.

      It's almost as if the designers couldn't see the point in asking a real spreadsheet user what their job involved before putting fingers to coding keys (a problem that infests IT to this day: "I use Word as a typewriter, so everyone uses it that way and I understand everything I need to know about the thing").

      Formulas also use a different field separator. This, at least, is almost completely catered for by the import process, but if you write them you'll need to learn a new vocabulary.

      FWIW I use only OO on my own machine, and hate struggling with the new cloudified Excel at work. The problem is I have no training in the new cloudified Excel and such little reason to use it I won't get any. That and the quart from a pint pot network we have, slowing things to a manageable speed.

  4. Franco Silver badge

    Excel does have a lot of uses, but at the same time it really gets on my nerves. Not so much the program, as the idiots who use it for everything.

    Some genius where I work decided shared calendars (despite having Exchange and SharePoint) are a bad thing and banned them, so departments use Excel for this and for timesheets and holiday planning and about a million other things that there are simpler and better ways to do.

    Lost count of the number of "our database isn't working" calls I've had, all of which are in fact corrupt Excel spreadsheets being misused. I'm sure Excel isn't the only spreadsheet app misused in this way though.

    1. Naselus

      The million-row excel file that should have been moved into Access fifteen years ago problem springs to mind...

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        "The million-row excel file that should have been moved into Access fifteen years ago"

        And to a proper database server 14 years and 11 months ago.

        1. bitten

          Filemaker

          For mere millions of rows Filemaker did the job perfectly 14 years and 10 months ago. The spreadsheet that could be a server.

          1. Pompous Git Silver badge

            Re: Filemaker

            "For mere millions of rows Filemaker did the job perfectly 14 years and 10 months ago. The spreadsheet that could be a server."
            Filemaker is a database product, not a spreadsheet. Fifteen years ago it was only a flatfiler even. I was a beta tester for the first Windows version codenamed Samurai.

            1. Nattrash
              Meh

              Re: Filemaker

              Hummm... So am I an old fart when I remember working geoCalc and Quarto (think that was DOS)? Must be, because my memory is failing me whether this was before Excel yes or no...

              1. I'm Dugly

                Re: Filemaker

                Maybe Quattro Pro from Corel?

                1. 404 Silver badge

                  Re: Filemaker

                  I still have a lawyers office where I install Quattro* on new machines... lol

                  *So old, spellcheck says wtf? lmao...

                2. Parash2

                  Re: Filemaker

                  Before that I have a memory of Borland's Quattro.

              2. The answer is 42

                Re: Filemaker

                I think you mean Quattro- I remember it because whilst 123 could sort by 3 columns, Quattro could sort by 5. Lets not forget Lotus Symphony, which did database, spreadsheet, wordprocessing etc all cunningly concealed as a spreadsheet.

            2. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge

              Re: Filemaker

              >> "For mere millions of rows Filemaker did the job perfectly 14 years and 10 months ago. The spreadsheet that could be a server."

              > Filemaker is a database product, not a spreadsheet. Fifteen years ago it was only a flatfiler even. I was a beta tester for the first Windows version codenamed Samurai.

              Speaking as an old and hardcore/evangelical RDBMS boy (in R&D on one of the only TWO rdbms.s which have ever managed SQL92 compliance, even to this day (well... technically Oracle, SQLServer(Sybase), etc can do it, but they need to table-lock everything -- not realistic for more than, say, 2 users) ) ... where was I?

              ...

              , flatfile storage knocks relational out of the park for speed for a surprising number of use cases. Plus Filemaker had such awesome user-friendly dev env that utter computer donkeys could knock out professional-quality apps in a weekend. With no idea what they were doing, merely an understanding of what they wanted.

              And don't get me started on relational front-ends dropped on top of column-stores for implicit intra-table joins (eg, every damn financial markets db on the planet). First hit that with SAS early 90s -- revelation.

        2. BongoJoe

          Normally, yes.

          But there are advantages with Access with million row databases (I have one) over 'proper database servers' such as:

          - Back up (XCOPY *.mdb will do the trick)

          - Sharing the data with a chum who is not on the network and is clueless (it's on your drop box, copy it somewhere and then open it)

          - Not having to maintain a proper database server

          Doing these things whilst at work and being paid for, as one person above mentioned this, and doing this at home when one wants simplicity is another.

          I could have a proper database and that being backed up but it's easier to rebuild a machine that's died, sling onto it Office via CD/DVD and then copy from pendrive the .mdb file.

          But despite the million record tables in my Access it's never died. Perhaps because I haven't used it for multi-user which, once upon a time, used to kill it (unless one did lots of clever stuff, but that's another story).

          It's another one of these If It's Access/Excel/VBA then it must be crap memes. It's actually a bloody good little database. Not perfect but still bloody good and has given me less grief than SQL Server over the years.

        3. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

          Proper database.

          I recall a (short) conversation with a colleague when I worked for an ISP in the noughties. She ran over to our cube, in a panic, saying she'd lost a business critical database on her PC. 'no you haven't' we said. "If it was business critical it would be on our SQL server, and we'd support it....'

          Still, not as bad as the guy who was using Crystal Reports and trying to make an offline copy of our customer database from the AS/400 to his PC every night. Caught him out when he ordered (through a non IT slush budget) some SCSI disks and a controller card, and couldn't get them to work, and started asking how to make them work in a roundabout but not admitting anything kind of way.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      My boss likes to use excel for gantt charts.

      They look really impressive, but I dread to think how much time was wasted on it.

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