Talking technology – beyond Excel

The advantages of web-based spreadsheet systems explained

Accountants love their spreadsheets, and they are going to play a big role in your future career, even though the profession’s favourite software tool has its drawbacks. The traditional ‘on-premise’ spreadsheet lives on your desktop, or the corporate server, and while it can be ideal for quick ‘what if?’ calculations and for recording certain types of information, it can leave a lot to be desired when it is used for iterative and collaborative processes, such as budgeting, where more than one person is going to work on a spreadsheet.

Using a traditional system, sharing a spreadsheet with multiple other users can be complex, messy, and time-consuming. E-mail messages and attachments quickly proliferate, slowing down the process of information sharing and turning version control into a nightmare – unless you are using specialist software to manage the process. Fortunately, the web-based approach of ‘on-demand’ spreadsheet applications can offer a more collaborative and less labour-intensive approach.

Web-based spreadsheets operate in the same way as other systems that use the ‘on-demand’ Software as a Service (SaaS) approach, (such as web-based e-mail services including Hotmail and Yahoo!). They don’t care which operating system you’re using (Windows, Macintosh or Open Source), because web-based spreadsheet systems are accessed through a browser (such as Explorer, Firefox or Safari), and users then create and store their spreadsheets on the server of the third-party service provider, off in ‘the cloud’. Your spreadsheet data can then be accessed anytime, from anywhere, by anyone with permission and internet access.

Web-based systems may not offer the extensive functionality (which few people use anyway) of traditional spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel, but they offer online version control, and this, coupled with their flexibility, can make a lot of spreadsheet-based processes much easier to undertake and manage. In many cases, web-based spreadsheet systems are also available free, and there is a growing range to choose from.

For example, offers just spreadsheet functionality (free in its basic form, with a premium service for subscribers), while and both offer an online spreadsheet and other productivity tools., for example, can be used to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations online, and it accepts popular file formats including DOC, XLS, RTF, CSV, PPT, and so on, which means that you can upload your existing files and work on them. There is even a web-based spreadsheet at that can be used (by subscribers) to share Excel spreadsheets over the web.

So you may be wondering why on-demand spreadsheet systems seem to be used so much less than their on-premise equivalents. Although storing spreadsheets beyond the security of the corporate firewall is a barrier for some organisations, the main reason is historical. For decades, Microsoft Excel has been factory-installed and then shipped out on (what now amounts to) many millions of PCs, so it has become the most widely used spreadsheet in the world.

Even if a vastly superior offering became available tomorrow, it would be years before it threatened the near-ubiquity of MS Excel. But because of the advantages offered by web-based spreadsheets, they are slowly but surely increasing in popularity, and student accountants who are keen to save time and money, and simplify some spreadsheet-based processes, would do well to take a closer look.


"For decades, Microsoft Excel has been factory-installed and then shipped out on (what now amounts to) many millions of PCs, so it has become the most widely used spreadsheet in the world"