Excel on the web: Microsoft closes the gap on the desktop version


If you haven’t tried Excel on the web in a while, you might be surprised by how many of your demanding spreadsheets will now run on any device with a browser.

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There aren’t any Excel desktop features that Microsoft wouldn’t consider building for the web, if customers are using them.  

Image: iStock

Pivot tables, the Office script recorder, extremely large worksheets — you used to need the Windows version of Excel to cope with spreadsheet files that took advantage of Excel’s most powerful features. Increasingly, you can work on them in your browser — and there are few, if any, desktop features that aren’t on the table to bring to the web version of Excel. 

Although the Mac and web versions of Excel may not yet have all the same features as Excel on Windows, they’re no less important, Brian Jones, head of product for Excel, told TechRepublic. “Different people have different desires; some people really want to work just in the web and in the browser and web apps; some folks want to be in rich client on Mac or on Windows. We treat them all equally: they’re all super-critical, they’re all tier-one versions of Excel. We have some catching up to do on the web, and so that’s where a huge amount of our effort has gone, but our goal is that people can use the platform of their choice, and they shouldn’t feel like they lost anything by making that choice.” 

Recent updates to Excel on the web have added formatting features like cell and table styles (including total rows), the ability to draw and erase cell borders, the ability to click on individual elements on a chart to format them, custom colour palettes, and even the mini-toolbar that shows a selection of formatting commands when you right-click, plus a new print preview. You can sort by cell or font colour or by conditional formatting as well as by cell values, split text into columns using delimiters, and get familiar keyboard shortcuts for navigating like Page Up and Page Down, and Ctrl-End to move to the last cell with data in. 

But the two most significant new web features are major areas in Excel: pivot tables and extensibility. Pivot tables isn’t a single feature, Jones pointed out. “If you’ve ever used them, pivot tables alone are more complex than almost any web app that exists. They have a huge host of hundreds and hundreds of capabilities and features. We’ve got a team that has a backlog of the high-priority features based on what they’re hearing from customers and what they’re seeing used in Windows.” 

Similarly, even seemingly simple features like the clipboard will keep getting enhancements for Excel on the web. “We’ve been talking about copy/paste for years. When we first started, it was ‘can we at least get it so plain text can be copied from one Excel workbook into another’. Now we’re [thinking about] rich formatting like looking at whether or not we can copy an entire sheet.” 

Bringing macros and add-ons to the web version of Excel relied on major changes to improve security and cross-platform options that started 10 years ago with the introduction of Office 365. Extensibility is one of the most challenging features to build for the web, Jones suggested: “It’s not just a checkbox feature; it’s really like it’s its own platform.” 

“Our old extensibility model wasn’t a cross-platform model; it just wouldn’t run in web…some pieces would run on Mac but not seamlessly. For about a decade we’ve been working on a new extensibility model for Office based on JavaScript APIs, which gives us that cross-platform ability.”

SEE: 83 Excel tips every user should master (TechRepublic)

Professional developers were the first to start using the new model for add-ins, but now Office Scripts brings it to the Excel users who normally write macros. “We’re seeing more and more people take legacy COM and VSTO add-ins and move those into the web model so they work cross platform. And then this spring we released what you can think of as the web version of VBA. Office Scripts leverages those same JavaScript APIs, but gives you more of an end-user developer experience where there’s an IDE for writing your script, and some basic macro recording. So we’re going to continue to invest in both of those. Just like we’re building a web version of Excel, we’re building a web version of the extensibility model, of VBA, and as we work through that we’ll continue to add the APIs that we see most used and that we’re getting the most requests for.” 

There have also been big improvements in performance and reliability, said Jones. “There’s a lot of focus on the fundamentals, making sure that you don’t have to refresh your session over and over, you can keep one session running for a long time.” 

The Excel team has just finished a two-year effort to move content rendering in Excel on the web from the HTML DOM to Canvas (and still maintain Office accessibility standards). “We used to draw the entire workbook using HTML DOM elements. If you imagine a really dense workbook, that’s a lot of HTML elements that would slow the browser down to get them [drawn].” 

It also brought Excel on the web much closer to rendering content the same way it looks in Excel on Windows. “One of the things we thought we could never get to 100% [compatibility] was rendering fidelity: does it look pixel perfect to what it does on the desktop? Using the DOM, we knew there’d be certain places where we just couldn’t do it now. With Canvas, a key focus is making sure we have that perfect fidelity. Even basic things like pixel column widths are so critical in terms of how people are laying out their information, like if they’re doing a dashboard.” 

Because every feature had to be moved to the new display technology, that’s been rolling out gradually. “Last spring, if you had a really basic workbook, it would use Canvas and then as it got more complex we had to fall back. We recently made the switch so that 100% of the time now, we’re using Canvas and the app has gotten quite a bit faster; it’s lighter weight and more responsive.” 

The move to Canvas came out of regular internal hackathons, as did the JavaScript version of the Excel calculation engine. Several times a year the Office team blocks off a week for ‘Fix, Hack, Learn’, Jones says. “People on the team can go and build anything they want, it’s a free week to do whatever you want and play around with stuff.” 

As part of adding LAMBDA functions to Excel, the team at Microsoft Research created a JavaScript version of the calculation engine for prototyping. When the researchers showed it to the Excel team there was a Fix, Hack, Learn week coming up, so they worked together to build the version that’s now used in the web app. 

“For maybe 98% of the times that you type a formula in Excel web, we’re able to do the calc right there client side using the local JavaScript calc engine, as opposed to having to go to the service and do that round trip. That has resulted in a much faster and more performant, responsive experience.” 

Coupled with increasing the size of Excel workbooks you can open on the web, that makes Excel on the web useful on less powerful devices. “We are getting to the point where the web app will be a place you can have really massive workbooks running. Even if you’ve got a low-end machine, most of the compute will happen up in the cloud and so it’s okay that you have a low-end machine that you’re using to access that workbook.” 

Picking feature priorities 

There aren’t any Excel desktop features that Microsoft wouldn’t consider building for the web, if customers are using them. “If it turns out there’s a big need customers have, we’ll figure out how to meet those needs,” said Jones. “There are some legacy features where, when we look at usage, we don’t see high usage and we don’t get a lot of people asking for in the web, so those we deprioritise. That’s not to say we wouldn’t ever do it, it’s just that it hasn’t come up and those that are higher needs are where our focus is.” 

The Excel team looks at UserVoice requests and the feedback sent from the Excel ‘send a smile, send a frown’ feature, as well as Net Promoter Score (NPS) measured across all the platforms Excel is on (which also includes free-form comments explaining why someone gave that score). 

“The Windows version Excel has some of the highest NPS that you see in the industry: it’s incredibly high. There’s a good gap between Windows and NPS scores that we get for our web app, and that’s because the expectation and the bar is so high.” 

SEE: Checklist: Securing Windows 10 systems (TechRepublic Premium)

Satisfaction with the web version is going up though, and the features customers are asking for are getting more sophisticated. “When we first made the decision to really make a huge surge around the web app, which was many years ago, the feedback we would get was things like ‘I can’t format my cells’ or ‘I can’t copy/paste this value’. Now it’s around advanced Pivot Table features. People want to have workbooks that are larger than 100 megabytes. The expectations continue to go up and up, as we get closer to that what people are used to with the desktop.” 

If the Excel feature that you need isn’t on the web roadmap –which already includes co-authoring files tagged by Microsoft Information Protection between web and desktop, and loading Excel Data Types from Power BI — use the feedback option in Excel to ask for it, Jones suggested. 

“Anything missing is more that we just haven’t gotten to it yet, or we haven’t gotten a signal yet that it’s critical.” 

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