Excel is still popular because it democratised control over data

In the 80s & 90s, Excel allowed people to handle and store data without coding. Then its popularity and continuous expansion made it number one software for analytics and office jobs. So...



Why is Excel still so popular?


I believe there are four reasons:

  • the wide user base

  • ease of use

  • versatility

  • low cost.

The phenomenon of Microsoft's spreadsheet software is that it has maintained top spots across all these dimensions. They are not number one in each of them. Except for the number of users, they have been surpassed in the other three categories in some ways by different solutions. Nevertheless, no other piece of software is more optimal in more than one of those dimensions.



Why Excel popularity matters?


It's actually hard to determine the exact number of users, but we looked everywhere and compiled a few numbers with some commentary. But first - why does a large userbase matter?



The more users, the better compatibility


Downloading files with uncommon extensions requires installing and upskilling new software. On the contrary, Excel is so popular that the vast majority of cloud-based solutions and industry-specific programmes allows exporting data to CSV or XLS format. Also, the majority of IT companies integrate their new applications with Excel.



A large userbase creates a high talent pool


The popularity of Excel means you don't have to scout professionals specialised in uncommon software. You may simply assume that the analyst or consultant will have basic spreadsheet skills as they probably used them before.



How many people use Excel?


It's impossible to provide a precise estimate of how many people really use Excel. It's because Microsoft usually doesn't single out Excel from their Office suite in reports for investors. Moreover, the number of licences doesn't account for those with unauthorised copies and doesn't check whether a certain user ever opened a spreadsheet.



The rumour is that 0.5-1.5 bn people use Excel


Depending on the source, you may find different estimates stating that Excel is used by between 0.5 and 1.5 bn people worldwide. The problem is that the articles quoting those numbers don't seem to reference the measurement methods or their source links ultimately lead to websites deleted many years ago... One of such websites even had the word "rumour" in the URL... I believe, however, that the order of magnitude seems about right.



How many Excel users did Microsoft confirm?


On 02/03/2015, the Excel user base was indirectly outlined by Microsoft's EVP. He referred to the productivity services, which at that time covered Office Suite, Skype, Outlook & OneDrive as they were usually sold together, especially as Office 365 package.

"Today for our productivity services we have 1.1 billion users".

-Qi Lu (Microsoft's EVP) on Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference

One year later, the number of users rose to 1.2 bln, as reported by Satya Nadella (Microsoft's CEO).

Then, the total number of Excel users has likely been growing, especially for Office 365, which has been gradually overtaking its offline alternative.


More recently, Microsoft's Annual Report for 2020 announced that the year brought tremendous growth in the Office 365 license revenues. For the commercial edition, it was 24% YoY while the number of consumer subscribers increased by 23% to 42.7mln users. Also, over 1 million companies used Office 365 in November 2020.



How does Excel popularity compare with other software?


We used LinkedIn ad targeting features to benchmark Excel popularity against Google Sheets and the most popular programming languages. Not all spreadsheet users have a Linkedin account, and the skills are self-declared. Nevertheless, it allowed for a detailed comparison between different categories, using data from March 2021.


Out of 710-720 mln of LinkedIn members, over 75 mln list Microsoft Excel, VBA or Microsoft Office as their skill. That's over 10.5% of users. In comparison, Google Sheets or G-Suite are listed by only a bit over 720 thousand users (0.1%).


Most popular programming languages are far less popular. Skills in any of the SQL variations are declared by slightly above 20 mln users, C++, C & C# together stated by 19-20mln users, Java & JavaScript 16-17mln, Python by about 9 mln & R by a bit over 6 mln.


Even general skills related to the analysis of data didn't surpass the popularity of Excel as declared by LinkedIn users. Data analysis skill is declared by 18-19 mln users, business intelligence by 12-13 mln & data modelling by 2.2-2.3mln users.


How often different job functions use Excel or VBA?


For most job functions specific to the office & corporate environment, over 1/6 LinkedIn users declare Excel, VBA or Office Suite skills. The highest number of users can be observed for Business Development Specialists (7.6mln), Sales Professionals (6.3 mln), Engineers (5.8 mln), as well as Education and IT workers (both 5.3 mln each).


When it comes to how often Excel is declared as skills among professionals of different job functions, the picture is different. Researchers seem to list it most frequently (28.5%), then Accountants (28.3%) & Finance employees (27.2%). Around 28% of Project and Programme Managers declare Excel and/or VBA skills, then Marketing Specialists (26.2%) and both HR & Consulting Professionals (25.2% each).


Has Excel got outdated since its initial release in 1987?


Excel is still perfectly fit for its core purpose of storing, handling and processing data in a user-friendly way. It also has significantly expanded its capacity with all the new versions and frequent updates.



The completeness of Excel


The current version of Excel allows for performing any type of operation and integrating with any system. The catch is that it will not always be optimal. There are, for instance, much better technologies for producing games (yes, there are many Excel games!) or handling the amounts of data that would exceed 1 mln rows by a lot.



Software Developers don't need it, but every other function does


Only specialised analysts need to use sophisticated analytical software. For instance, accountants' time is put to much better use when they learn to use accounting software. Acquiring coding skills just to analyse data that a spreadsheet can handle is not a reasonable solution for them.



Excel is relatively easy to use on a basic level...


Leveraging templates and analysing data in Excel is perhaps just a little bit more difficult than using email. Most functionalities and formulas are well documented, and troubleshooting errors is also straightforward. There is also a lot of content explaining how to perform all the most popular tasks.



Yet its real power is unlocked with macros and clever templates


Working every week for hours in unstructured spreadsheets is much like working while laying. It may be comfortable for an hour, but then it gets inefficient, awkward, and you are afraid to admit it to your colleagues. If you are planning to tackle procrastination, start with optimising Excel files or get the help of Senacea's Excel Consultants.



Automating Excel work is the start to business process improvement


Inefficient spreadsheet work is an open secret in many companies. I witnessed that in all potential ways when helping clients and working as an Excel Expert in-house. It is very uncomfortable for many to find themselves daily inside a bulky workbook, figuring out workarounds to create a decent report or cash flow statement.


Only lean and fit for the purpose Excel files allow seeing the bigger picture. First, you need to optimise how data is processed, the mechanisms pushing it to the dashboards and converting it to outputs. Only then you can implement enhancements like data validation, taxonomy lists, macros or automated checks.


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