by Thomas Wailgum

The Business Application of the Decade: And the Winner Is…

Dec 23, 2009
Enterprise Applications

It's not flashy or pretty, and used incorrectly it can create a big nightmare. But business users simply can't quit this app.

The second installment of the semi-annual Enterprise Software Unplugged Awards are here, and this time we are honoring the Business Application of the Decade, 2000-2010! The winners of this prestigious award, known as the “ESUie” (pronounced “e – s – you – ee”), receive the coveted ESUie statue—a tin replica of a software installation CD which looks like it may contain chocolate but does not.

(If you missed the first awards show in June 2009, which honored software mediocrity, customer negligence and business ineptitude in the enterprise software industry, you can read it here.)

When looking back at the previous 10 years, there have been numerous novel and innovative business apps that have burst on the scene.

But the ESUie award does not honor what is possible with business software, or what might be cool next year in enterprise apps, but what actually is being used by the users because they like it and want to use it to get their jobs done.

In other words: No one is forcing them to use it (because “IT says so”), and chances are those users will go out of their way and possibly break corporate rules just to keep using the software.

So without further ado, the winner of the Business Application of the Decade award goes to: Microsoft Excel!!

And the crowd goes wild!

At companies big and small, Excel runs nearly all of corporate America’s back-office financial operations, and lets managers and information workers from all kinds of departments collect, analyze and share rows and columns of information with colleagues, business partners and anyone else on who happens to be on the “cc: list.” The Excel application (packaged with MS Office) has a near monopoly on corporate desktops, and .xls documents are as pervasive as e-mail applications, Internet browsers and gray cubicles.

This ESUie award honors the fact that businesses just can’t seem to live without Excel. In fact, Excel spreadsheets are the technological equivalent of the cockroach—around since the 1980s, you can’t stop Excel spreadsheets; you can only hope to contain them. (And good luck with that.)

Even as financials apps embedded in ERP systems have proliferated (ostensibly with the notion that the vendors’ apps would replace Excel), users still see tremendous value and kinship toward Excel’s calculating cuteness.

For instance, Nectarios Lazaris, CIO for global architectural design firm Woods Bagot, told in the article “The Future of ERP” that even as the business side is demanding more business intelligence and analytics data from its ERP system, his users still love their Excel. “[My] people will say: Why can’t an ERP system be as powerful as Excel,” Lazaris says, “which is ironic.”

The largest ERP vendor, SAP, has seemingly embraced an “If you can’t beat ’em join ’em” strategy with Excel—that would be the co-innovated Duet product that allows “information workers to easily and quickly participate in SAP business processes and share SAP business data via the familiar Office environment,” states the Duet webpage. (I’m still a little fuzzy on how Duet fits into the overall scheme of Microsoft’s and SAP’s future business software plans. But because both vendors are still committed to the product means it’s not going away any time soon.)

In his blog post on the Top 10 Trends for 2010 in Analytics, BI and Performance Management, author and former SAP executive Nenshad Bardoliwalla doesn’t forget about old faithful. “Excel will continue to provide the dominant paradigm for end-user BI consumption,” Bardoliwalla writes. “For Excel specifically, the number one analytic tool by far with a home on hundreds of millions of personal desktops, Microsoft has invested significantly in ensuring its continued viability as we move past its second decade of existence, and its adoption shows absolutely no sign of abating any time soon.”

This award, however, does not come without a little controversy. Research points to the prominence of spreadsheet errors: One project found that 80 percent of spreadsheets contain significant errors. And executives who rely on the “truthiness” of unchecked spreadsheets alone may find themselves in trouble. (See Eight of the Worst Spreadsheet Blunders to read about the business fallout from erroneous spreadsheets.)

What’s important to remember is that, like Microsoft PowerPoint, it’s not the spreadsheet software that’s defective; it’s those imperfect human beings who are using the applications: inputting data, copying and pasting numbers from row to row and column to column, and writing inaccurate formulae. (Editor’s Note: Per new FTC rules, I must disclose that Microsoft did not pay me for writing that sentence.)

Even with its notable warts, the multi-cell, coolly calculating Excel is worthy of this ESUie award. As a testament to its staying power, blogger Bardoliwalla adds: “While many vendors have tried in vain to displace Excel from the desktops of the business user for more than two decades, none will be any closer to succeeding any time soon.”

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