Back in 1991, the AICPA released a survey that showed that Lotus 1-2-3, then the spreadsheet of choice. It was also the top database, graphics package, and budgeting tool in the CPA community.

Change the words "1-2-3" to Microsoft Excel and you'd probably get a similar result today. The familiar spreadsheet is still the interface that most financial professionals use to store, retrieve, and manipulate data.

That reality was recognized by CCH when it provided a worksheet interface for its 2004 ProSystem fx Tax software, and a number of applications are moving to the worksheet appearance because that's what business users are comfortable with.

Spreadsheets should not be used for a number of these applications. Database software, inherently better at protecting data, should often be used in the place of spreadsheets. It would seem logical that budgeting software has far more appropriate features for the intended use than does Excel.

But it hasn't happened. Most budgeting software companies will tell you that it is difficult to get spreadsheet users away from their favorite application.

What's the issue? Is it simply inertia, in that people don't want to spend the time to learn other applications? Are the specialized products harder to learn or harder to use? Or does the spreadsheet simply meet the needs of an awful lot of users.

It's somewhat hard to tell. One accounting software reseller commented that many accountants don't even know the features of spreadsheets that well. They don't know about pivot tables or look ups. And that's not surprising--Microsoft will tell you that the features that are most requested for addition to applications are those that are already there.

The key is measuring lost productivity and lost billable hours. Bigger firms are more likely than small ones to be able to quantify what over-reliance on spreadsheets cost them.

Certainly one reason for not switching is that individuals don't want to learn a series of other applications when they can use just one. That's why the approach of using a worksheet interface may just pry some Excel junkies away.

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