Technology

Thinking Beyond Office, Part 2: Are Excel and Outlook Replaceable?

By / Mar 25, 2014 The OSX app Airmail, one of many apps that claim to reinvent email, but one of the few with Exchange support. (Airmail screenshot)

As I showed last week, potential replacements for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint are plentiful, and some of them might even be mature enough to switch to now. But can you say the same thing about the other two main parts of Office—Excel and Outlook? That answer is a little more challenging.

It’s almost here, apparently.

Last week, the rumor mill heated up on that whole Microsoft Office for the iPad thing, and some news outlets are reporting that the company will finally announce the new version on Thursday, during the first press event by new CEO Satya Nadella.

Which means my timing for a two-part series on alternatives for the Office suite is pretty good (I think).

Part two provides a bit of a challenge, honestly, as some parts of Office are easier to replace than others, and I picked the two easiest parts to replace to write about last week. Word can easily be replaced in a workflow, as can PowerPoint.

But Outlook is tied pretty closely to the enterprise due to the popularity of Microsoft’s Exchange, and while alternatives exist for Excel, the app is pretty far ahead of the competition and therefore isn’t in danger of getting usurped anytime soon. But that’s not for lack of trying. Read on for some alternatives.

Where Office Excels Most

Spreadsheets were “killer apps” around 1983 or so, but they’ve become somewhat stagnant in recent years. That’s partly because Microsoft Excel was such an amazing effort back in the day, but also partly because spreadsheets are inherently, uh, kind of stale.

Spreadsheets aren’t as easy to reinvent as word processors, and that’s why Excel remains a killer app. But there are still some options out there, including:

The biggest and best competitor: Of the many offerings in Google’s popular Docs suite, perhaps the most robust is its spreadsheet app, which is a fairly close match for Excel and was upgraded to offer offline support late last year. Beyond its strengths as a number-cruncher, the platform is a great option for web-based integration, as spreadsheets can easily be turned into makeshift databases for simple web apps (think about what you can do with this IFTTT recipe), and like most Google Docs products, the app excels at real-time collaboration. You probably know the product already, and it’s no slouch. (Another option: For tablet users, spreadsheet programs are sort of a pain because, well, spreadsheets are basically the ultimate desktop-based app. There are alternatives, however, with the downright elegant Permanent perhaps being the most intriguing.)

Experimental approaches: In the age of the cloud, the spreadsheet can feel like taking a large mallet to a thumbtack. Sure, you can use it, but does it make sense for simply updating a form? That’s why a solution like Karma Platform might be worth looking into. It allows users to upload spreadsheets and use them as the basis of a web app. As VentureBeat notes, this solution could offer the best of both approaches to users. “The great thing about Excel spreadsheets is that they’re simple, quick to create, and cheap to make and share,” John Koetsier writes. “But they’re also hard to keep track of, hard to share, and hard to keep current. Web apps are great for sharing and keeping data up-to-date, but they’re typically expensive to create, expensive to update, and not extremely flexible.” The platform is still young, but it’s worth checking out. (Another option: If you use spreadsheets mostly as a way to organize data rather than to crunch numbers, the iOS app Grid, developed with the help of a former Excel designer, is an interesting, if less business-oriented, approach.)

A Different Outlook

There’s a good chance that while you’re reading this, your phone will ping you (or you’ll see a blip on your screen) offering a fresh notification that you got an email. This probably annoys you, but not nearly as much as the thousands of unread emails in your inbox.

If you’re working in an office, it’s likely that app will be Outlook. Can you get rid of it? And how about email as a whole, while we’re at it? Some ideas:

The client headache: If you find Outlook annoying, that’s part of the reason You see so many efforts to “reinvent” the email client, with desktop and mobile clients alike drawing attention for their ability to save, sort, slice, and dice your email in an effort to get you closer to “Inbox Zero.” But with mail servers not exactly the easiest thing in the world to get rid of, you may have some headaches trying to make these newfangled approaches work for you, as many of them don’t support Exchange. It’s tough to recommend a single client for this reason—though a few worth keeping an eye on include the iOS app Boxer (which is set to get an Android version eventually), the Mac app Airmail, and the Windows app eM Client (shown in the video above). By the way, I checked: Each of these supports Microsoft Exchange. (Another option: You could always talk your IT department into switching to Google Apps—which may not be an easy conversation to have. That’d open up your email client options considerably, to things like the multi-platform Inky, the iOS-based Mailbox, or the Mac-focused Mail Pilot. Just saying.)

Replace email with chat: Maybe our frustration with Outlook isn’t necessarily a problem of Outlook itself, but with electronic mail, a relic of an earlier era. We may never lose it entirely, but inside the office, email can be a big annoyance. Plenty of apps focus on replacing noisy messages with real-time collaboration. One big attention-grabber of this type is Slack, a juiced-up chat app masterminded by Flickr cofounder Stewart Butterfield. Don’t let the word “chat” fool you. It’s really for making it easier for teams to communicate and stay informed, which is part of the reason it offers a long list of app integrations—allowing for relevant updates to hit your feeds in an automated fashion. Since exiting beta last month, the app has gotten the type of buzz that business-oriented startups only dream of. It’ll be interesting if they can keep it up. (Another option: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Yammer, the enterprise-focused social network which, by the way, is owned by Microsoft. It fills a similar need to Slack, though it gets most of its inspiration from Facebook.)

Seeing all these options, does ditching Microsoft Office—or at least parts of it—seem feasible to you? Anything you’d recommend that I missed? Throw a comment below. Would love to hear your take.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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