SocialCalc Wikifies Spreadsheets

Wiki and social software firm Socialtext has put its own spin on the spreadsheet. The new offering, SocialCalc, is a multi-user, wiki-based spreadsheet program intended to simplfy version control, reduce errors and increase productivity, Socialtext said.

SocialCalc joins offerings from Google and others as an alternative to Microsoft’s Excel, aimed at users for whom collaboration is a priority. It combines the functionality of a spreadsheet with a wiki and provides linking between sheets.

“It’s primarily aimed at mid-to-large enterprises. And what we have is a hosted service that can serve organizations of all sizes. Our bread and butter are behind the firewall deployments that can scale over 100,000 users. That’s a huge difference to running Google [Spreadsheets], where they mine data for advertising,” said Ross Mayfield, chairman, president and cofounder of Socialtext.

The Web-based service is currently in private beta; it will become available to Socialtext customers within 90 days.

Social Calculations

“The way that most employees work today is that they play e-mail volleyball with attachments. They’re sending Excel files around, and no one is sure who’s got the latest version and have really high error rates — as high as 90 percent on spreadsheets in organizations,” Mayfield told LinuxInsider.

Products like Google Spreadsheet and EditGrid are great when you have a group of people focused on a single spreadsheet, but discussion or conversation around those spreadsheets are very difficult, he said.

What’s different about SocialCalc, according to Mayfield, is that it’s a social spreadsheet. “It is designed for distributed multi-group work, and what we’ve done is integrate it with our business social platform form to give not just Web-based spreadsheet capability but the ability to do all the things people like to do with wikis — searching, linking, authoring and annotation, comments, tagging, feeds and notifications,” he said.

“Those things not only resolve issues like who’s got the latest revision [but also] how do you communicate more effectively. Because we’re doing it on the wiki model, what you end up having is the capability to do things like be in a spreadsheet and easily link to a wiki page or include a wiki page in a cell, or include a list of pages that share a tag in a worksheet,” he continued.

Users can also do things that play upon the strengths of SocialCalc, such as including a spreadsheet inside a page for people to place comments and documentation around it. Or they can include a selection of cells from a given spreadsheet and present it in a wiki page, Mayfield pointed out.

“The tight integration between a Web-based spreadsheet and a wiki foundation enables you to do different kinds of work across multiple groups in different locations and be able to respect the privacy, permissions and considerations you would need to have if, for instance, you wanted to use it as a tool for collaborating with your clients,” he continued.

In regard to a user learning curve, users need to adjust to the fact that others can edit what another person has written or published, according to Mayfield.

“There’s a little bit more of a learning curve with a wiki. And a lot of that learning curve is about getting comfortable with, if I write something here, other people can edit it. Or if I publish something, is that okay in the culture of my organization?” he explained.

Not an Excel Wannabe

SocialCalc offers users more than 100 functions, but that pales in comparison to the more than 300 available in Excel or the over 250 available in Google Spreadsheets.That said, however, Social Calc is a “worthy kind of addition into the wiki way of working,” Jeffery Mann, a Gartner analyst, told LinuxInsider.

“They are not positioning this to replace Excel. Certainly it does have fewer functions, but that’s not really a problem, because this is not going to be [for] the real hardcore spreadsheet jockey who keeps 27 tabs open and has cross references and uses it to drive investment decisions — that’s really not what this is aimed at,” he explained.

Instead, SocialCalc is part of an emerging market that recognizes that there is demand for simpler kinds of spreadsheets that do not require the full functionality of Excel, Mann continued.

“The difference [with Excel] is that it is collaborative, the cost and the deployment. It’s Web accessible, you don’t have to e-mail around to figure out who has the latest version. It’s all just held in the cloud. They’re emphasizing that more than the hundreds of functions the stand-alones have,” he pointed out.

Socialtext will build in additional functionalities, such as further integration with Excel and further extensions with our social software platform, Mayfield said.

“We’ve really just scratched the surface on the integrated capabilities we can create,” he added.

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