Smartsheet: A smarter spreadsheet online

There's something remarkable about how people use spreadsheets: Not only are they employed for structured calculations, they also are used as databases, notepads and applications (powered by macros and embedded languages or wrapped in Flash). And when spreadsheets are migrated to the Web, they become even more multipurpose for example being used as the backend for data entry forms and interactive graphs.

Not surprisingly a number of companies, Google included, have created their own takes on how an online spreadsheet should be delivered and presented, what functions it should support (obviously Microsoft is the touchstone for features and functions), and what novel additions can be provided.

I just had a briefing on an impressive online spreadsheet published by Smartsheet.

The big idea behind Smartsheet is that spreadsheets are no longer primarily about calculations. Nope, now online spreadsheets, according to Smartsheet, are collaboration and workflow platforms - a very powerful way of looking at how people actually use spreadsheets.

Smartsheet allows you to create a familiar-looking spreadsheet either from scratch or from a template (quite a range of templates are available including such useful prototypes as a project tracker, an event management plan, and an M&A due diligence worksheet) and then share it. Users can be assigned as owners (full control), admins (ability to assign rights to other users), editors (make changes), or viewers (read only) and then notified by e-mail. Another neat feature is the ability to attach files and "discussions" (sequential user notes) to spreadsheet rows.

All of the Excel functions are supported and a few new functions are included such the CHILDREN function which references rows that are 'direct descendants' (one level removed) of a parent row allowing you to do things like sum those children without having to specify the specific cells (a fantastic feature when you add new rows to a spreadsheet - it makes for one less bit of logic to break).

Now, if you've used online survey systems, particularly the forms feature of spreadsheets under Google Docs, you'll have marveled at the sheer ugliness of the forms - they always look like they've been laid out using a knife and fork. Not so with Smartsheet; the forms that are generated to frontend data entry actually look good!

E-mail reminders can be set on date fields and you can configure e-mail notifications for when specific changes are made such as to notifying certain users when data in a specific column is altered.

Smartsheets can be viewed as calendars and Gantt charts, change history can be tracked, and customized reports generated.

Yet another neat feature is "Smartsourcing" which is Smartsheet's integration with Amazon's Mechanical Turk allowing you to outsource bulk tasks in spreadsheets such as data validation. Smartsheet is also integrated with Google Docs allowing you to log in via Gmail or Google Apps, attach Google Docs documents, integrate with Google Calendar (very useful!), and exchange data between Smartsheet and Google Docs spreadsheets.

Smartsheet provides a folder and workspaces metaphor for organizing and managing your spreadsheets and you can brand your spreadsheets - a very desirable feature when sharing spreadsheets with clients and business partners.

Smartsheet has also addressed mobile delivery and interaction and provides support for iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile or Android smartphones.

Finally, Smartsheet is integrated with Jott allowing spreadsheet updates by voice!

Pricing starts at $9.95 per month for one sheet creator and unlimited users with up to 10 sheets of up to 30MB per sheet and 3GB total but without Gantt charts, branding, survey forms or Smartsourcing.

The top-end offering is an enterprise plan starting at $149 per month for 25 sheet creators and unlimited users with up to 1,000 sheets of up to 250MB per sheet and 100GB total (volume pricing is also available).

Salesforce integration and iPad support are planned and an API is being tested and is scheduled for release by year end.

I like Smartsheet. It's very slick and its features make spreadsheets into a different kind of business tool.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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