Sorry Mr. Nadella, But What We REALLY Need Is Automation

I just spent a couple of my valuable hours perusing the presentations of the recent Build Seminar in San Fran ….

I am going to try to be as concise as possible on my take-away.  I could write pages and pages explaining how I really feel about the direction Microsoft is taking but I will try to be brief ..

1. The Office content consisted of one session


and apparently it was the final session of the event (quite a statement there)

2. The content of this presentation reflects exclusively the ability to append functionality to the Task Pane in Excel or in an Access Web App (as opposed to client) using Apps for Office.

3. This content consists of in-situ add-ins that can be included inside the Window of any Office app (PowerPoint, Outlook, Excel. Word and Access Web Apps)

4. I have been here before several times – starting in the late 80’s the first time a Microsoft rep showed me how I could embed an Excel Worksheet inside a Word Document (a technology that still sucks btw ;-)) – In the late 90’s there was a big push on adding functionality to the Word and Excel Task Bars exactly like this.  This went absolutely nowhere.  I guess all the people who were involved in that attempt have left the company and the new people have decided to try once again.  Isn’t there an old saying about that 🙂 ?

5. On top of all that, implementing this new technology involves implementing these “solutions” using Apps For Office in Visual Studio.  Visual Studio, a haven for Excel lovers if I’ve ever seen one…  What is wrong with an in-file automation technology or at least an add-in like capability that can travel with a file or be referenced externally?

6. There is a reference at the last minute to “old VBA” and its limitations and how this new exciting capability opens the World to developers in Office – apparently.

So if VBA is considered an old and obsolete “file-based” technology I would REALLY like to hear what they are planning for true “Automation” of Excel?  By that I mean a true macro language that is designed specifically ONLY for automation of the functionality that is inherent to Excel… not a loose binding of a bunch of “cutesy” external apps nobody is asking for that I would refer to as Add-Ins that do good “Demo”,  rather than Real Business.

If Microsoft has decided that VBA is dead because they have fired everyone who ever worked on it all those years ago then I call for them to replace it with something comparable asap.  I was recently surprised to find that a VBA app I wrote on my PC in Excel 2013 works just fine on my client’s Mac using Office for the Mac …  If they’re capable of writing a version of VBA for the Mac (which I assume is not COM-based) then Id like to know what’s stopping them from building a version to run anywhere?  My instincts tell me it is not technical as much as it is a conscious decision on the part of Microsoft  to downgrade the capability of Excel to something little more than a grid app to produce nice demos with pretty graphs.  I have no idea where the PowerPivot and PowerQuery technologies fit in the Automation story of Excel and they just scream out for that in my opinion.

IMHO, while there are many out there who individually manipulate spreadsheets doing ad-hoc reporting and analysis, I believe that there is actually an even bigger need for well-designed models built to be robust and reliable and able to perform repetitive tasks without a need for someone who understands all the complexity of the model to manually edit the file’s design every day or month or year. I also believe that the ability to push one button and have it run a major analysis importing data, manipulating formats, creating reports an publishing them to PDFs or to an Excel Web based file for consumption by many more people who have no desire to do it themselves (or have actual JOBS that don’t mean Excel development) has HUGE value.

All this requires the automation that is currently only available in VBA.  Without that (or an equivalent) capability Excel will just fall away to be replaced by more expensive, less capable technologies (that just might not be from Microsoft btw). Alternatively it will all fall back to user-maintained reporting with the attendant non-productivity and problems that can create.

It appears to me that the people making the decisions on Excel (and don’t get me going on Access) have no history nor do they understand or care about all the good and reasonable ways that businesses everywhere use and could use VBA (or XLM or whatever) to Automate their business processes.  The fact that they don’t get it makes me shake my head in despair.


p.s. You comments would be greatly appreciated 🙂 ….


About Biggus Dickus

Dick is a consultant in London, ON Canada who specializes in Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Office Development.
This entry was posted in Access, Excel, Excel 2013, Microsoft Access, Microsoft Access 2013, Microsoft Excel 2013, Office 2013, Office Automation, PowerPivot, Spreadsheets, VBA. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Sorry Mr. Nadella, But What We REALLY Need Is Automation

  1. Jon Peltier says:

    This whole apps thing just looks like instead of having Excel and a browser window open side by side, you have to somehow cram the browser content into Excel. It’s cool, maybe, but it’s never anything useful. I don’t even like the stupid Research pane that comes up whenever the Alt key is held down two milliseconds too long. Why do I want to do research inside of Excel when I have a perfectly good browser for that.

    You’re right. They know what’s cool, but not what’s useful.

    • Biggus Dickus says:

      “They know what’s cool, but not what’s useful.”

      How is that possible ? I think the people who built all the functionality into Excel VBA understood for 20 years, but these guys are driven by something else. I suspect it has more to do with what their bosses and their customers’ bosses think than what their customers themselves actually want or need.

      I just do not get it at all 😦

      • Did it happen when Ballmer took over ~2000? The CEO went from a guy who cut his teeth on BASIC to a guy who wasn’t a programmer. Under Gates, putting VB5 inside Office apps *was* cool. Just like if there was a programmer in charge now, putting C# inside Excel would be cool (or even Javascript if it could do anything useful). But with business jerks at the helm, what’s cool (as you point out) is whatever other business jerks (the users’ bosses) say is cool.

        Apparently what they think is cool is yet another vehicle for finding out the weather or the DJIA. Thrilling.

      • Biggus Dickus says:

        “Apparently what they think is cool is yet another vehicle for finding out the weather or the DJIA. Thrilling.”

        Yes – it gives good Demo … and that’s all..

      • Jon Peltier says:

        Dick –

        “[P]utting VB5 inside Office apps *was* cool” but it was also useful. MS has lost sight of this combination.

  2. Mark says:

    I was kind of hoping that progress in software would be a steady forward process much like hardware.

    Alas this seems not to be the case – I guess it is a victim of being a hand crafted discipline with very difficult objective measurement targets.

    • Biggus Dickus says:

      That’s a very nice way of explaining all this. I might say it in a cruder fashion 😉 ..

      I have thought EXACTLY that … I remember when every new version was an exciting time as I learned all the new capabilities I could sell to clients old and new … Lately every step forward (PowerPivot, Access Services 2010) ended up being overwhelmed by so many steps backwards. Then on top of that there has been Microsoft’s complete “dissing” of everything “Client” while offering nothing of any capability to replace it up in the Cloud.
      In other words they have been promoting technologies that are significantly less capable than what they had already delivered on the client and the message is that we all should think that’s a good thing … insulting is the nicest word I can find.

      Thanx for that.

  3. Biggus Dickus says:

    I’m always disappointed that despite quite a few people reading this blog in the end the only comments are from “The Usual Suspects” 😦 (Sorry Mark 🙂 ), who tend to agree with me more often than not – thank you very much guys ? I’d sure like to hear what more of you really think as well.

    What do regular Excel users really think about these issues? Do they give them any thought? Do they even know what’s going on with the Office Suite ? Is there a BIG case of WTF ahead of us when people finally get confronted with reality in the next version(s)?

  4. exlteam says:

    Maybe its time for the excel community to try and create on its own an alternative to vba. Anyone thinks its possible?

    • Biggus Dickus says:

      I think an automation solution MUST be part of the application and not an after-market product. Think about how much hassle it would be convincing Corporation IT departments in the IT world we will be living in from now on to allow you to install a third-party product on your user’s machines (which could mean the whole company). Also how would you accomodate versioning going forward? And also frankly building a complete automation technology on the side of Excel would seem to me to be just too big an effort for an outside entity on the off-chance that it will sell and they will recoup their investment? I wouldn’t put my money in such a venture no matter how much I would respect anyone who tried.

      No .. in my opinion there has to be a NATIVE macro capability in Excel that will work on all platforms (including Phone) or they have to accept that there will just be VBA on the full-featured client OS’s (PC Windows and OSX) AND MICROSOFT NEEDS TO PROMOTE THEIR CLIENT TECHNOLOGY RATHER THAN DISSING IT IN SEMINARS AND PLAYING UP THE DUMBED-DOWN VERSIONS OF EXCEL (LIKE THAT ON THE iPAD) INSTEAD.

      This is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in 30 years in the business – THE major software vendor promoting their far less capable new technology and openly down-playing their existing fully capable existing technology. As mentioned earlier by someone here aren’t things supposed to get better and better going forward? Or if you can’t make something better then you should be proudly promoting their best available technology.

      I know that the devs a Microsoft have to promote what they are currently working on to protect their jobs but someone higher up is supposed to understand where their REAL strength is and promote THAT ALWAYS. In software that ALWAYS has to be your BEST offering .. and in Excel that is client version with VBA included. Plain and simple.

  5. exlteam says:

    Complete automation solution from Microsoft would be nice but it seems that it is not going to happen. For the last couple of years in all interviews with excel mvp’s the answer is the same – vba is not going to disappear but will not be upgraded/replaced.
    It is an interesting question why such a real strength point as you say is ignored by Microsoft and my guess is that the answer is lack of competition. Qlikview, Tableau and similar products caused Microsoft not only to invest in PowerPivot but also to integrate it with Excel. Office for ipad {as limited as it is) is an important step because of tablet rising popularity and the threat that people will find alternative to office on the tablet platform, from what I’ve read a similar to ipad touch version of office for win8 tablets is in progress probably motivated by same reasons.
    Vba alternative in a form of third party product doesn’t have to be a complete solution, it needs to be “good enough” and aimed at “3 person companies” (definition borrowed from Oz du Soleil 🙂 ) which less subjected to corporate IT policies.
    Its true that the odds are against this kind of project, but at least at the moment I don’t see a better solution.

    • Biggus Dickus says:

      Yes I agree with you on all that.

      But, I believe that if Excel automation is not acceptable in Corporate environments then it’s all over. Excel will become a marginal glorified calculator and will fade down to a low level of importance. I think that would be a shame for everyone involved including Microsoft…

  6. Heavy VBA user here (and I typically agree with you) but offering a counterpoint to the discussion.

    It seems there are currently quite a few ways to automate Excel without VBA. I always knew about VSTO/A, C#, C++, etc. They obviously have a much larger learning curve, but can get done what needs to get done. I recently also learned that even Powershell can do what needs to be done.

    The cynic in me things that pushing users from VBA to other resources may be calculated to sell more visual studio licenses. But I’m not sure they are that smart 🙂

    As I grow in my career, I’m also learning that there are other ways to accomplish what needs to be done, without VBA entering the equation (fixing the issue before it even gets to the spreadsheet), but realizing that sometimes it’s easier to just throw some VBA at it.

    It’s a delicate balance that is moving closer to the edge of a cliff…

    • Biggus Dickus says:

      I agree that VSTO would probably do the job but as you say the learning curve is huge and it would add to the complexity of the whole process that would further alienate folks from the process.

      I also think that some of their efforts are meant to get VS devs to use Excel with their Agave stuff but as I said that is not Automation, they are just little add-ins.

      As far as having to use VBA less as you get better that is VERY true. I ALWAYS build the model to the max and only use VBA for that which I can’t do in the core functionality of Excel … all the more reason why a true macro language would probably be all we really need. Follow that with some serious messaging around Excel best-practices – another thing that Microsoft has done a HORRIBLE job with promoting – and you would have something that could really get the job done.

      VBA (and VSTO) are awesome, but to a certain extent they are overkill and it is that excessive capability (while many of us love it) that could be part of the problem. People really just need a “macro” capability not a complete programming language – but only if that would be all that Microsoft would provide. I would love to just be able to use VBA everywhere Excel shows up but that doesn’t look likely so in the end something like XLM might be just fine. But SOMETHING please 🙂 !!


  7. Simon says:

    Under Balmers reign MS has lost the plot. The clueful people there are shouted down by the clueless masses who have never worked outside MS. I have lost all hope for Office, and VS isn’t much better. I do more xcode these days.
    I decided a few years ago that MS is a lost cause, and it just keeps getter loster. A new captain isn’t going to pull them out of this death spiral.
    My advice: move on. (not that the alternatives are much better – with *value* being so out of fashion in IT, and pointless bling being so hip).

    • Biggus Dickus says:

      Great comment Simon. You found the source of the problem right there … Those left at MS and those they’re hiring have some agenda that is different from bringing to market good software, especially for REAL business. I just do NOT get it at all.

      As far as moving on I just cannot figure out to where.., I still want to build Departmental solutions rather than Enterprise and as such these solutions require that they be built using software that can do more for much less.

      Microsoft seems to have decided that there are only 2 levels of software – that which is SO complex that it cannot be done except at great cost (if at all), or the solution is simple and insultingly basic (does nice demos though). They seem to have no idea how complex every business process is and that there is a huge need for tools that can make the idiosyncratic processes happen and yet that can be done at a cost that departments can justify.

      Then if MS goes out in the field and only promotes its software for Enterprise and actually is helping IT departments grab back control down to the desktop level so that nothing will get done frankly. Oh yes – it’ll be done on bad user-developed and maintained spreadsheets – and not necessarily in Excel either.

      Otherwise the work simply will not get done and everyone loses.

      Access and Excel can do nearly all of that work RIGHT NOW … but if MS is going to lop off capability going forward and are going to openly “dis”their own technology then how can we sell Excel and/or Access as a solution…?

      I am NOT giving up on this … but I can sure understand why you would if you feel there are alternatives you can move to.

  8. Simon says:

    Well I have been doing pure Access for the last few months, but the future is suddenly looking Essbase flavoured. Yay.

    • Biggus Dickus says:

      Not sure how large market that can be … and doesn’t it rely on a robust client version of Excel if I’m not mistaken? 🙂

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