What will replace Excel? And will everybody learn to code?

TL;DR: 1) Dunno. I have some ideas. 2) No.

But please read on…

Recently I canvassed Packt authors’ views on the future of tech. Several predicted that Excel-style data analysis would die. Current Excel users would learn to code and perform analysis in Python or R.

Python and R are on the up, and many people are learning to code these languages to perform data analysis. Data analysis tutorials are a strong category at the moment, for Packt and all publishers. Meanwhile, Excel is becoming less and less fit for purpose as the default analysis tool for managers doing it themselves.

History repeatin’

But the ‘everybody will learn to code’ prediction reminded me of HTML in the late 90s. Back then you could learn all you needed about HTML in a few hours. If you wanted to put a web page online that was your only option. Learn HTML! It was easy, and certainly less hassle than trying to do it in Word. It seemed obvious that in the future every document would be on the Web, and thus everybody who created documents would learn HTML.

The first half of this prediction came true. I’m writing this document right here on the Web and it will look more beautiful than any of the hand coded HTML pages I ever created.

But my HTML is rusty to say the least. It’s much more complex than it was back then, reader’s expectations are higher, and it never broke through to become something everybody knew. And most people I work with know even less.

Better work needs better tools

So, here’s what I believe will happen:

  1. Yes, Excel in its current form is not fit for purpose. We need better ways to analyse data. The of MS Office model of putting all data in a grid and then playing with it is going to disappear.
  2. Managers will get better at performing data analysis. In future, managers will be expected to produce the kind of analysis that is currently only possible by writing code. One author predicted that in future “putting Excel on your CV will be a sign that you don’t know what you are doing”. 100% agree with that.
  3. We will see of new data analysis tools emerge that are both more powerful, more convenient, and easier than Excel. Just as Medium is easier and more powerful than Word, so these new tools will be easier and more powerful than Excel. These tools will give managers the sort of results now only possible with custom code, but all through an intuitive and fun interface.
  4. Coding will continue to be a specialism. Once a task becomes important enough that the masses want to do it, new tools will emerge that let them do it without code.

So, what tools should we be watching right now as potential Excel killers?

The contenders

QuickSight from Amazon is a new, low cost business intelligence service. It’s fast and easy to use. It’s single user price is $9 per month, competitive with Excel and very accessible. You submit data from various sources, and then pull out the reports and analysis you want.

Project Jupyter is going the other way, building progressively more layers of abstraction on top of code and IronPython. For now you need to code to use Project Jupyter. But that might change. The Open Source CMS movement, which gave rise to WordPress, started as tools that made PHP programming easier. Gradually they got more powerful until you could use them without knowing any PHP at all. Now WordPress drives a decent proportion of all sites on the Internet, and requires no coding at all. Many of its users will never have heard of PHP or even HTML.

So…

These tools have potential to change the world. Packt helped millions of people build sites with Open Source CMSs, apps with Open Source JavaScript libraries, and much more. The world will become a better place if we can all make better use of data, and Packt wants to help.

If you’d like to be part of it, and write about these topics, email me on davidb@packtpub.com. First time authors welcome. Everybody starts somewhere — and this is an exciting place to start!

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