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SocialText wiki platform gets collaborative spreadsheets

The pros and the cons of the wiki platform's new spreadsheet feature called SocialCalc.

SocialCalc is coming to the enterprise wiki, SocialText. SocialText

Corporate Wiki software company SocialText is adding a spreadsheet to its wiki product. The new feature, SocialCalc, allows users to collaborate on spreadsheets the same way they do in the company's text-based Wikis. The product is based on Dan Bricklin's open-source Wikicalc.

For spreadsheet jockeys this is both good and bad news. On the positive side, SocialCalc spreadsheets inherit wiki-style revision tracking, which is an automatic audit trail that will arguably be even more important on spreadsheets with financial and other hard data on them than it is on text-based wiki pages. "There's no inherent audit trail in Excel," SocialText chairman Ross Mayfield reminded me.

Users can also easily embed data from other SocialCalc sheets in their spreadsheets, or for that matter data from any SocialText wiki page or Web URL. This could make building workgroup-wide, or even company-wide spreadsheets possible. Assuming, that is, everyone in said workgroup or company is comfortable using SocialCalc instead of Excel.

Which brings us to the negatives of this new product. The biggest is that it is not Excel, and it will require the most re-learning from exactly those people who would find its collaboration functions the most helpful: heavy spreadsheet users. And it's not just the interface that's different, it's the features. Like many Web-based productivity tools, SocialCalc doesn't have all the analytic or presentation features of its mature standalone counterparts. I predict this will frustrate people who want to use SocialCalc to build complex company-wide models on it.

Mayfield told me that coordinating work is "at least eight times as important" as providing a complete Excel-caliber feature set on SocialCalc, and I agree in principle, but I can still see a few heavy Excel users in a company raising a very loud stink if they are forced to use a tool that doesn't do everything they are accustomed to.

The other downside to SocialCalc is that it doesn't allow real-time collaboration like the spreadsheet in Google Docs does. While some people see live multi-person spreadsheet editing as a gimmick, in fact the more people who need to contribute to a worksheet the more important that feature becomes. It removes the awkward need for users to wait in line to edit a document if someone else has it open.

SocialText will provide professional services to make the adoption easier by its customers, and the tool will no doubt be welcomed by infrequent spreadsheet users. It's a good addition to the SocialText lineup; I just don't expect it to be an easy transition for everyone.