The Case for Modern Productivity Tools

Several startups are realizing the power of spreadsheets and the spreadsheet “metaphor” as an end-user development approach: A way to allow people that don’t see themselves as programmers to create their own “IT solutions”, developing anything from small database applications and interactive reports to automation services and business process applications.

Airtable, CODA, dashdash, Notion and our own GRID are all exploring this concept from different angles. And there is a lot of “there” there. Today’s productivity tools and document forms have largely remained the same since the ’90s and are ripe for an upgrade.

The startups mentioned above are all approaching the market from wildly different vantage point, yet are unified by the fact that they are utilizing people’s existing skills and knowledge of spreadsheets to take them beyond what the leading spreadsheet solutions of the day can do.

These solutions straddle the intersection of at least three traditional product categories: Low-code Development Platforms, Modern Business Intelligence and Analytics and Productivity Software.

In the end, they may be different enough that they would actually fall into different categories in the current enterprise software categorization. But there’s also a strong chance that we’re seeing the birth of a new product category. I feel like at least at this exploratory phase in the “industry” it might be helpful to have a way to refer to this group of products — so the natural question is: What to call it?

I see that sites like StackShare are using “Spreadsheets-as-a-Backend”. To be frank, that’s not terribly descriptive. If going down that route, “Spreadsheet platforms” or “Spreadsheets-as-a-Platform” would be a lot better. In fact that — in many ways — goes back to the roots. After all, early spreadsheets like VisiCalc were the original business software platforms for the PC, from which a lot of the enterprise software categories of today evolved. This includes CRMs, ERPs and dedicated financial planning software, all of which entered the PC era as mere “templates” in early spreadsheet software before breaking off into purpose-built solutions and some into entire industries of their own.

But to be honest, I think “Spreadsheet platforms” isn’t capturing the potential in this category. I believe that — properly executed — these solutions will evolve into the tools that will capture the majority of every organization’s proprietary business logic, allow domain experts to develop the tools they need while keeping IT happy with the level of security and sophistication of their solutions. I think these are the productivity tools of the 21st century, that will migrate “end-user developed solutions” from the era of the PC to the er era of cloud solutions.

I believe that together with some of the developments we’re seeing in presentation software, email clients and groupware, this new category is going to transform the way we do, not only spreadsheets, but also documents, presentations, communication and custom business applications.

Jeremy Cai highlights this evolution in a recent tweet:

In a world where Slack is replacing internal emails, Zoom is replacing WebEx and Dropbox has all but replaced the local hard drive, the time has certainly come for innovation in the Productivity Tools category. This is already happening with companies like Pitch going after the presentation software market. Spreadsheets too are ripe for modernization.

In my mind, the new software category in town is simply “Modern Productivity Tools,” — transforming the core of the knowledge worker’s stack from the current ’90s approach into the 21st century.

Modern by Nick Youngson