Monday, August 13, 2007

Sharing spreadsheets

In the past, the easiest way to share a small database was to create a spreadsheet and email it to your collaborators. This time-tested method has withstood more sophisticated competition for several reasons:

First, databases are still tricky for some people to understand. While relational databases can be thought of as tables that have several indexes, this is more than many people want to deal with. Second, the collaboration tools are tough to learn and use. Look at how many people still use Lotus Notes for email and not much else. And since most of us are comfortable with email, using it as the transportation system isn't all that taxing. Until the day comes when three people are working on the same spreadsheet and make conflicting changes.

Third, building the right kinds of collaborative applications requires some skill and understanding how and what kinds of data are shared. How many people are going to be adding/changing records to your database? How many just want to do queries and reports? And how do you prevent conflicting updates?

Finally, when you add the Web and Internet-based access to the data, you have greatly increased the skill level required to create and manage your database. While there are some really good Internet-facing database programs (Alpha Software, Filemaker, Quickbase from Intuit, and DabbleDb – just to name a few that I know of), none of these are as easy to setup and manipulate as, a service that has been out for the past year but recently gotten some much-needed improvements.

You can create an account and upload your spreadsheet in about five minutes. If your first line in the spreadsheet contains your field names, you are just about done. You can easily sort any column quickly by clicking on the arrow icons. You can quickly locate duplicate records, create a mail merge template and forms for your Web site, all with just a couple of clicks of the mouse. Custom reports are simple, and what's more, they can be distributed via email to your collaborators on a set schedule. Adding different collaborators with various discrete permissions is very straightforward, and in about 30 minutes you can have a project setup and working with your team.

There are other ways to import data into your database, including using Web forms or setting up a special email inbox that will post the information automatically. These tasks will take some skill and some HTML knowledge, however.

Other tools require more programming skill to do what Trackvia does with a few mouse clicks, or are more cumbersome to manipulate, or don't have the automatic defaults that make setup as easy as Trackvia. Did I mention the cost? $10 per month per user. This includes an unlimited number of databases and up to a GB of attachment storage (meaning that you aren't charged for the actual records themselves that are stored). If you sign up before October 1 for an account, the company will give you several additional features free.

The company has been around for over a year and has some pretty impressive customers, including people that have built some very large databases. One final thing that I liked: with Trackvia, you have a completely free 14-day trial: you don't give them your credit card to register. If you are sharing your spreadsheets the old fashioned way, you might want to check them out.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.