16.8.07. Numbers

I don’t know when I last used a spreadsheet for its actual spreadsheet capabilities, on a sheet I designed myself. I think it may go back to AppleWorks (on the Apple II)! Sure, I’ve used sheets like time cards and travel requests that others had made where I just had to fill in the holes. And I’ve received more than my fair share of spreadsheets used like an outliner / lightweight database / structured note list. But I don’t remember how long it’s been since I used a spreadsheet to figure out a budget, to track expenses, or any other dumb mundane thing like that. Until last night.

I was getting ready to pay my mid-month bills, and I was trying to figure out how much I could pay towards one of my credit cards and still have enough cash to cover the expenses remaining in the month. I also realized that I’ve been spending quite a bit at the iTunes Music Store and hadn’t been tracking any of it. I decided that this would be an excellent time to try out Apple’s new spreadsheet application, Numbers. I found a downloadable time trial of Apple’s iWork ‘08 suite, and immediately got to work.

Numbers is pretty damn cool. I don’t know if there are other spreadsheets that behave like this, but in modern times, it seems so obvious: instead of having the big set of cells in one large table, you work in small floating spreadsheets / tables. This is a big deal for so many reasons, with the most obvious being layout. Another great reason is that each table/spreadsheet can be more focused on its job. Already, Numbers felt a lot more intuitive than anything I had used in a long time.

When doing my simple rest-of-the-month budget, my main question was “how much can I pay on this card and still have enough cash on hand for the rest of the month?” Numbers made it easy with its slider option. For just this one cell, I was able to quickly configure it to give me a slider with a range of -700 to -500. When I got the rest of the budget entered, I could then play with the slider and watch its impact on the total-leftover cell. In previous months, I’ve generally done this calculation in my head, or compared where I stood the prior month after paying this particular bill. It was much nicer to whip up a simple spreadsheet where I could make this one particular number interactive and see the results immediately.

So I was able to get a couple of simple but nice looking spreadsheets together quickly that gave me actual data. I could easily play with this data, or just be embarrassed by it (I have spent quite a bit on the iTunes Music Store).

There are still a lot of old-style spreadsheet rules in play, at least in formulas and the like. That’s made a bit easier by being able to use header names (ie, =SUM(Total) or =MINA(Date Purchased)). I think it was Lotus’ Improv, which first appeared on NeXTStep, that worked this way. In fact, I think with Improv, it was the only way you could work: there were no A/B/C/D columns or rows. This was part of a cool feature of Improv wherein you could drag and drop header representations and regroup the data visually without impact on the calculations. I still think that was one of the most forward-thinking spreadsheet applications. But, it’s gone. I believe there’s some open source variation on the idea, possibly written just for GNUStep…?

Still, Numbers is pretty decent. I love the free-floating tables. It does make it much easier to compose complex spreadsheet pages out of multiple tables and data types. It’s pretty easy to refer to other tables as well. And it’s nice to have non-tabular data (text, graphics, etc) floating free from those numbers, making it easier to adjust layouts without impacting cells.

I’m impressed enough that I’m quite likely to buy iWork ‘08, just for Numbers alone. I have a small need for Pages and almost no need for Keynote, but I do find myself needing to get on top of my finances and similar data. Numbers is the first tool I’ve encountered that I think will let me handle my odd needs without requiring a degree or summer course in spreadsheets.

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