September 24, 2018 marked the first time a major Excel release has been rendered obsolete on the day of its general availability.
Historically, Excel has been updated roughly every 3 years, and each major release has brought new features and sometimes user interface changes—such was the case with Excel 2007. Now, this isn't a Lotus 1-2-3 versus Microsoft Excel stand-off. There's no external competitor you've been missing out on. The threat to Excel 2019 is completely internal at Microsoft, in the form of Office 365.
From the inception of the software business, we've been conditioned to pay once for software programs: In the industry parlance, we were buying perpetual software licenses. Such licenses give purchasers the right to use the product forever or until operating systems evolve beyond said software being viable, whichever comes first.
Office 365 is different, in that you pay monthly or annually for access to Excel and the other Office apps. Stop paying, and you lose access. At this point, you have a choice: pay once for Excel, or subscribe to Office 365. So, what's the difference?
Rather than forcing anyone to subscribe to their software, as some major companies have done, Microsoft is offering inducements in the form of frequent updates to the Office 365 platform, sometimes as often as monthly. To date, these new features have been limited to a handful of worksheet functions, such as SWITCH, IFS, TEXTJOIN, CONCAT, MAXIFS and MINIFS, as well as features such as new data types (stocks and geography that enable you to automatically enrich spreadsheets) and the new Funnel chart.
There's more, such as the ability to deselect cells, which has long been a thorn in the user's side. These were all added during the time Excel 2016 was the most recent version, which means the latest one will likely include all these features. At the time of writing, my copy of Office 2019 is being shipped. Yet, all those improvements to Office 365 were just the opening act.
In the coming months, Microsoft is going to roll out a brand-new calculation engine that will enable functionality like we've never seen before. To quote Excel Program Manager Joe McDaid:
"Until now, you wrote a formula for each value you wanted returned to the grid. One formula, one value. If you wanted another value, you wrote (or copied) another formula. With dynamic arrays, that all changes. Now, you can write a formula, hit the enter key and get an array of values returned. One formula, many values. This will allow you to build more capable spreadsheets faster, with fewer formulas and less chance of error."
Among other things, this means the end of elaborate array formulas that required pressing Ctrl-Shift-Enter. It also harkens the arrival of new worksheet functions such as =SORT, =FILTER and =UNIQUE, which in worksheet cells will dynamically carry out tasks that previously required manual use of the Sort, Filter and Remove Duplicates features on Excel's Data menu, respectively. There'll also be a new =#SPILL error that will notify you if there's any existing data these functions need to display your information.
Keep in mind Excel 2019's feature set is frozen in time, meaning what you see when you first launch the software is what you get until, let's say, Excel 2022 arrives. Conversely, it would appear the Office 365 version of Excel is going to continue to evolve at an ever more rapid pace. In the words of Bill Jelen, a.k.a. Mr. Excel, "Perpetual versions of Excel should be reserved for people with limited Internet, such as those living in Antarctica or Mars."
David H. Ringstrom, CPA, is an author and nationally recognized instructor who teaches scores of webinars each year. His Excel courses are based on over 25 years of consulting and teaching experience. His mantra is “Either you work Excel, or it works you.” David offers spreadsheet and database consulting services nationwide.