Thursday, June 15, 2006

Excel Interoperability

Various people at Microsoft (David Gainer, Doug Mahugh, Benjamin Mitchell) have been talking about the new features in Excel 2007.

Doug: "Excel offers a rich interface that empowers users to create spectacular spreadsheets quickly with no formal training."

Benjamin: "If we could work more harminously with this spreadsheet we could build the application for much lower cost but equal or higher business value. ... It's amazing to think that Windows and Office could lead to a scenario where a front-office trader could write software that can be executed in a cluster - an arena that previously seemed the domain of C++ and hard-core developers."

The server-side functionality of Excel (together with web service support) looks very interesting, and appears to contribute to technical interoperability. But there are still major issues of semantic interoperability for end-user platforms such as Excel, as Philip Boxer and I explained in our SOA Governance article in Architecture Journal 6.
"Let’s think about interoperability of management spreadsheets in a large organization. Each manager produces his or her own spreadsheets in an idiosyncratic way to support a particular set of management decisions. Although they all import some data from the corporate database, they have mostly added data from elsewhere, and they have all formatted things differently. A senior manager, Joe, gives a presentation to a board meeting about a major strategic decision, supporting his recommendations with some charts drawn in Microsoft Excel that are derived from a complicated, handcrafted (and completely undocumented) spreadsheet. Joe’s colleagues find it impossible to understand his spreadsheet, or to import his analysis into their own spreadsheets for further analysis. Joe’s successor is more likely to build a new spreadsheet than try to use the existing one.

"Interoperability fails at two levels here. Not only at the technical level of sharing the spreadsheet as a user-designed artifact, but it also fails at the level of meaning. The artifact is an expression of a framework of meaning created by Joe that is not shared by Joe’s colleagues and successors. Joe is trying to coordinate data in a way that requires him to make it interoperate in unfamiliar (nonstandard) ways. The very difficulties for managers collaborating on complex strategic decisions also reflect their potential value in creating new ways of acting."

The more Microsoft and other vendors improve technical interoperability (including stuff like web services), the more we have to think about higher levels of interoperability such as semantic interoperability. Which may turn out to be much more difficult.

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