Nadella will continue strategic acquisition of mobile productivity apps

Dina Bass at Bloomberg Business has been tipped by people familiar with Microsoft’s plans that Satya Nadella is planning to continue his acquisitions of mobile productivity applications for iOS and Android. Nadella has recently scooped up the popular calendar app Sunrise (see Microsoft reported to acquire calendar app Sunrise), and the email/calendar app Acompli, which has been relaunched as Outlook for iOS (see The best Gmail client is Outlook? Really?).

Microsoft has a large number of apps for those platforms now, and as I explored in a recent post — Nadella’s first year shows he’s staying ahead of the cloud/mobile wave — but Bass’ article shows that this is part of a larger strategic plan, not just a few random deals. According to Bass’ informants we may see other categories of apps acquired:

Now Microsoft is trying to complete more such transactions, with categories under consideration including note-taking and project management, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are confidential. Microsoft is looking largely at deals valued from the tens of millions of dollars to as much as a few hundred million dollars, said one of the people.

‘Project management’ could mean all sorts of things, in this context, but task management tools would make sense, for certain.

One Bass informant explicitly mentioned Yammer, which Microsoft bought in Ballmer’s day for $1.2 billion, and comments,

While Yammer has helped alter Microsoft’s development culture, it hasn’t pulled through as many Office sales as anticipated, said the person.

Hmmm. I didn’t think the metric for Yammer success was ‘pulling through Office sales’, but I guess that’s the negative judgment at this point. Although, my understanding is that the changes in Microsoft development culture wasn’t a function of using Yammer, but the spread and adoption of Yammer’s agile development practices. Those form part of the push that Nadella launched last year to change the development culture at Microsoft, specifically pulling development and testing back into one functional group, as well as decreasing outside consultants.

The negative vibe about Yammer matches other indications I’ve gotten in recent months, too , and of course David Sacks, Yammer’s founder and CEO, left Microsoft last summer (see David Sacks leaves Yammer as part of Microsoft reorganization), which may be another indication of a souring attitude about Yammer at Microsoft. Also, Microsoft seems to be developing Yammerish capabilities directly in Office 365 (see Microsoft rolling out Groups in Office 365: the end of Yammer?).

The limitations on deal size rules out bigger companies like Evernote, Slack, and other companies valued over a billion.

Task management company Asana might fit the bill, as the last round of funding valued the company at $250 million.

A Bass informant specifically calls out smart ways to work with spreadsheets on mobile devices as an area of interest. Maybe they should take a look at Quip, then (see Quip adds spreadsheets to its productivity tool). There’s also Smartsheet, which include spreadsheets and project management, too (see Smartsheet announces Workmaps, a tool to visualize connections), although it’s not primarily mobile.

At any rate, it looks like Nadella’s acquisition spree won’t be slowing soon.

Quip adds spreadsheets to its productivity tool

Quip, the online co-editor tool, has announced the availability of Quip Spreadsheets. Just to quibble (quipple?), they are really more like worksheets, since they are embedded in basic Quip documents, along with text, checklists, bulleted lists, images, @mentions, and so on.

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The now familiar activity stream of comments is on the left hand side — the conversation — while a spreadsheet has been embedded in the lower right of the Q 3 Business Goals document.

Quip has implemented over over 400 functions, so heavy number-crunching is supported. Spreadsheets are supported now on  iPhone, iPad, Android phones and tablets, and the web app.

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Taking advantage of the embedding, Quip supports referencing cells of a spreadsheet in the text of a document, so that when the cell is updated, the text reflects it:

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Of course, this doesn’t stipulate what happens when you have multiple spreadsheets in a document. The usual approach would be to precede the cell with the name of the spreadsheet, which is what I hope they have done. This would also allow linking across spreadsheets, which is needed for serious spreadsheet work. Likewise, they might support linking across documents in a similar way. I will update this description when they’ve responded.

They also provide a full-screen spreadsheet mode, which is great for dealing with traditional non-embedded spreadsheets, like those that are imported from Excel, CSV, and OpenOffice.

Quip has pulled off a very well-done and deeply integrated approach to co-editing spreadsheets.

Smartsheet is a social tool with an image problem

Smartsheet is a really fascinating social tool, but because of its resemblance to a spreadsheet and the omission of some key user experience, the power and utility of the application may not be immediately evident, even to long-time users.

Smartsheet seems a lot like Google Drive’s spreadsheet. However, the data that is managed in smartsheets’ cells  and the visibility and access controls across the product is unlike what goes on in Google spreadsheets. For example, a Smartsheet can manage tasks, each of which which can be assigned to specific users. Start and end dates can be included, which can be displayed as Gantt charts or in calendar views. Here’s a template of a project with task dependencies, for example.

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The view that is glaringly missing from Smartsheet is the activity stream, a collation of all recent activities in all smartsheets a user has access to. Without that — which is the dominant social metaphor nowadays — users will have to visit each smartsheet and inspect them to discover what has been updated.

Supporting Cooperative Work

Hidden in the visibility and access controls of Smartsheet is an interesting find. The design allows for a very rich sort of cooperative work. For example, I can create one smartsheet with 20 columns of data, some of which I want to share, and some I want to remain confidential. Smartsheet supports linking the values in one or more columns into columns in another smartsheet. So I could share the names and resumés of job candidates, for example, by linking to those columns into a shared spreadsheet, but not linking the column with salary history.

By extension, there can be a sprawling network of information managed in dozens, hundreds or thousands of smartsheets can be networked together, with information shared in a fragmented pattern, radiating outward, and being mixed with other local information. Consider something really distributed, like organizing the Olympics, where thousands of individual companies might be sharing core information managed by the Olympic organizing committee, like dates, locations, and core responsibilities, and then each organization could take that public data, and add their own personal information in secondary smartsheets, and share that in a dozen different ways with subcontractors and internal departments.

In such a system there is no master, centralized control: it’s a fully distributed but interconnected network of information intended to coordinate that activities of many, many people, but it works on a networked, pull basis. And those people can be very loosely connected: perhaps the smartsheet information is all that’s needed. Note that Smartsheet supports a version of its tool that integrates with Mechanical Turk for crowdsourcing small tasks, for example.

The tool has a very rich capability around form-based information capture, so users can create Smartsheet-based forms, post them externally, like on a website, and capture data as inputs to business activities. For example, job applicants could fill in a form with basic information, and submit a file attachment with a resumé. That information is captured in a smartsheet, and then cascade into an application review smartsheet with an evaluation checklist.

But the presentation of smartsheets — looking like standalone spreadsheets, and with the linkages and access information concealed in record and sheet-level metadata — conceals the latent power of this tool. So, I think Smartsheet needs to also create a presentation of the network of sheets. For example, if I have created a collection of 25 smartsheets with links between them, I would like to be able to visualize those connections, like a mindmap or an entity-relationship diagram. And perhaps even manipulate them in that view.

The Bottom Line

The dominance of the spreadsheet metaphor in Smartsheets is both a blessing and a curse. It makes it immediately understandable to people who may have been managing projects in spreadsheets, but it also conceals the tool’s hidden capabilities for cooperative work. Until the user experience is amped up to better support that, Smartsheet will be considered just a slightly more powerful spreadsheet, and that’s a shame.

Let’s make Google Docs suck less

Google Docs, which can be slow and hard to use, is an essential product in need of improvement. At GigaOM, we see problems as opportunity for innovation, so we invite you, readers, to weigh in on how would you fix or change Google’s extremely-handy-but-could-be-so-much-better productivity tools.

Numbers on the iPad: Doesn’t Add Up

Numbers for the iPad is an outstanding standalone application. The creation of basic spreadsheets is uniquely optimized for the iPad layout. However, Numbers does not share well with others, and if you use Excel at all, you should probably just move along to another app.

iWork With Numbers: Conditional Formatting

Numbers

This is the first in a series on some of the more advanced functionality of Numbers, my favorite spreadsheet app. If you’re new to spreadsheets, or just want to make them look a little less like Microsoft Excel, this article should be right up your alley. In this article, we’ll talk about conditional formatting.

What is conditional formatting?

The real power behind spreadsheets is not just how well they can crunch data, but how you can visually present the information in a variety of ways. Sometimes, however, you may want to give more attention to a particular area, or hide certain data if it’s not relevant. You often see conditional formatting applied to financial spreadsheets where positive values are in black or green, but negative values are always in “the red.” So how do you do that? It’s where conditional formatting, or formatting based on certain criteria, comes into play. Read More about iWork With Numbers: Conditional Formatting