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Flash excels with Xcelsius

Feb 09, 20044 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft Excel

Because Macromedia wisely decided to make the Flash file format an open proprietary standard and provide APIs, an active third-party market for Flash add-ons and extensions has grown. Some of these products are amazing.

For the last two weeks we have sliced and diced Macromedia’s Flash presentation system, and this week we will finish it up. To start with, we want to discuss the Flash third-party market. Because Macromedia wisely decided to make the Flash file format an open proprietary standard and provide APIs, an active third-party market for Flash add-ons and extensions has grown.

Some of these products are amazing. One of our favorites, covered in a Network World Web Applications newsletter, is Xcelsius from Infommersion. Xcelsius demonstrates just how powerful Flash can be for creating content for the Web and makes something very complex look really simple: It links the data in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to a wide range of components, including graphs, gauges and controls that are all presented through a Flash interface. You start by creating a new project and then define an Excel spreadsheet as the data source.

The components let you do things like modify the data in a cell using, for example, a text input box, a slider or a dial. There are also grids (essentially fragments of a spreadsheet), list and combo boxes (that set table values), radio and push buttons (that also set table values), URL buttons (that can load a Web page into the current window or a new one), and even a map of the U.S. that is broken into states that can be linked to spreadsheet data.

The graphs include bar, column, line, bubble and XY layouts, and a pie chart. You link cells in the spreadsheet to the graph and the graphs are updated as the underlying spreadsheet data changes. What is really cool about the presentation of the graphs and the other components is that they are great to look at (if there’s one thing many products fail at, it is the sophistication of their presentation).

What really impressed us was that Xcelsius not only understands Excel’s number formats, it also understands many of the Excel functions (see a list of currently recognized functions).

When you set a value in an Xcelsius presentation using a slider, for example, the data in the spreadsheet is updated and the ensuing recalculations are propagated to any components that display spreadsheet values.

To build an Xcelsius presentation you simply click on a component, click on the layout page where it is to be located (you can drag it wherever you want later), and modify its attributes. These can include formatting such as font, font size and attributes, the cells where data is read and written, and whether the component is visible (which can be conditional on the content of a cell in the spreadsheet).

Xcelsius creates an analog of the spreadsheet in Macromedia’s ActionScript and all the graphical elements that display the data as Flash components. The result is a self-contained model that can perform all the calculations of the original augmented by really cool presentation.

Once you are finished configuring the components you can preview the presentation in Xcelsius, export the results to a Flash file, a Flash file with an associated HTML file, a Flash file attached to an Outlook e-mail message or a PowerPoint slide.

The results are spectacular! We can honestly say we have seen few products that are as powerful and as easy to use and that produce such outstanding results.

Xcelsius comes in two versions: Standard ($195) and Professional ($495). The Professional version supports Dynamic Web Query, which allows retrieval of spreadsheet data in XML format from a URL. And when you create such a system Xcelsius goes one step further and generates a file containing an XML prototype for the live data. You can configure data updates to happen on the loading of the presentation or at specified intervals – useful for data that frequently changes such as network status data.

This product is fantastic for creating portals and dashboards to track business processes such as sales and production. Infommersion has some demos that show possible implementations  – we particularly like the profitability analysis in the business intelligence section.

So for all the opprobrium that is heaped on Flash for its role in Internet advertising, the technology not only has wider potential, it is also far more powerful than its role in the world of Mammon might lead you to believe. Let us know what you use it for.

Flashy presentations to


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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