Help Wanted: Add-in versus Web Application?

I recently updated this site with a page listing the DCXL Requirements.  These five requirements are the basic feature set and capabilities we would like have for the Excel Add-in that is to be developed in the course of the project.  The engineering team at Microsoft Research checked out our requirements and had a (rather surprising) suggestion: instead of an add-in, they recommended a web-based application.

Add-ins are little pieces of software that you can download to extend the capabilities of a program – in our case, Microsoft Excel.  Synonyms for add-inare plug-in and add-on.  They are downloaded, installed, and then appear within a specific program. An add-in for Excel would appear in the Excel “ribbon”, and would add new features to Excel.

A web-based application is something a bit different. It’s a software system designed to support “machine-to-machine interaction over a network”.  Web applications require the web (shocking, I know) and do not require that you download a program.  Instead, you use an internet connection and the web-based application. Basically, these are web sites that do more than just display information – they do something with the information or files provided by the user, on the user’s behalf. Web sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and SkyDrive are examples of web applications.

So I turn to you, community: what are your thoughts on this?  Make your voice heard!  You can email me directly, comment on the blog below, or come on down to CDL‘s Downtown Oakland office and tell me in person.  But please comment quickly – this decision needs to be made soon.  You can also vote using the quick poll in the sidebar to the right of this post.  We want to know what you think!

To help you formulate intelligent comments, here’s a rough comparison of the two options:

Add-in: The user would download the add-in for use on the current machine. They could perform the above tasks via a new “ribbon” that appears at the top of the Excel window.  They would be able to perform the above tasks on their current spreadsheet.

Web application: The user would go to the website hosting the web application. They would upload (drag-and-drop) a spreadsheet to the site.  They could then perform the above tasks to the spreadsheet.  The spreadsheet could then be downloaded back onto their PC.

Office Add-In Web-Based Application
Platform Compatibility Windows only Any
Spreadsheet compatibility Different add-in for each Excel version One application covers multiple versions; potential future expansion to SQL, CSV, XML, Open Office, GoogleDocs etc
Download necessary? Yes No
Software updates Fixed bugs require download & re-install No download/re-install necessary
Cloud-based? No Yes
Offline use? Yes No; potential future for HTML5 and offline use
Languages C#/.NET C/C++ HTML/JavaScript C#/ASP.NET
Has all the functionality of Excel Yes No

And here are the basic capabilities we want, regardless of which of the two options above becomes a reality:

  1. Must work for Excel users without the add-in
  2. No additional software (other than add-in and Excel) necessary
  3. Can be used offline
  4. Perform CSV compatibility checks, reporting, and automated fixes
  5. Add Metadata to data file
    1. Can use existing metadata as a template
    2. Add-in can automatically generate some of the metadata where the info is available from the file
  6. Generate a citation for the data file
  7. Deposit data and metadata in a repository

Download the complete requirements as a PDF: DCXL Requirements

From Flickr by Thewmatt

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11 thoughts on “Help Wanted: Add-in versus Web Application?

  1. Ethan White says:

    Definitely the web app. I’ve always been surprised that you folks were planning on writing an Excel Add-in, since it’s pretty much the least generalizable/extensible format imaginable and won’t work for non-Windows users (which there are quite a few of in the sciences). I certainly understand the desire to make these kinds of tools work with the most common piece of software that people use and I think that the proposed web app solution provides a nice compromise.

    The other nice thing about a web app is the potential for community involvement. Presumably there aren’t a lot of Excel Add-in programmers out there in the scientific community, but there are plenty of folks who have backgrounds in some of the technologies that would be used in a web application and might chip-in with things like supporting non-Excel formats.

  2. Karthik Ram says:

    I’d like to second everything Ethan said. There is almost no advantage to having an add-in for a proprietary software . Two significant advantages of a web app:

    1. The app could easily be made available offline but still run on a browser. e.g. Google Refine . If the source code is made public, that would easily allow anyone in the scientific community to contribute and extend the functionality. Functions that require an internet connection (such as depositing the data to a repository) could automatically be enabled/disabled based on internet availability. So offline use does not have to be a maybe. HTML5 has made is significantly easier to develop offline web apps.

    2. A web app can incorporate new functionality (new data sources, new metadata standards etc) with minimal user involvement.

  3. lynn yarmey says:

    I vote for add-in.

    I think the glory of this project really rests in the fact that you are doing the work to connect with where many scientists are right now. While the better technical direction is likely the web app for all of the reasons already stated, I think the add-in will require a smaller shift in current practices and is thus more likely to succeed. I do wish the add-in wouldn’t be windows-only!

  4. John Cob says:

    The Add-in is the way to go. Rationale:

    Why Excel: There are already many web apps that accomplish this function and it is not clear how this project would go beyond already well plowed ground. (Perhaps I stand to be enlightened here.) The reason engagement with Microsoft/Excel is important is because a large number of scientists today use Excel as the modality with which to collect, organize, and analyze their data. We can argue about whether it is the most appropriate tool to use or whether or which tools are superior, but that misses the point that the best way to help today’s scientists improve their data practices is to meet them where they do their work. If this were the only effort ever undertaken then questions about the appropriateness of Excel or Excel file formats as proprietary might have some weight. But the game we are in is to create an ecosystem that promotes good data practices. Entraining the large number of data streams that are created with Excel is an important part of that.

    Why offline: A very large number of scientists perform their work *NOT* in front of a monitor. Offline access is a very important requirement since the wildlife research observatory, volcano observatory, rapid-response seismic even evaluation team often do not have network access. The best hope to capture and preserve meta-data is when the data is created. Any work process that does it later also does it at increased cost and pain. In a hostile data collection environment it is still likely that I will have a tablet or other electronic input device, but it is less likely that I will have reliable, high-bandwidth, low-latency network access that would support a rich web experience. There is a real need for an offline mode (or “airplane-mode”) form of operation. Now if the implementation is a web-service that has an offline caching and re-synching formulation, then that would fit the bill

    While the other five requirements listed above are important, I think that these two are far more important for this project: Make this effort easier for excel users and make it work offline.

    That said, there is another approach in the vein of why not take “rich and in love” which would mean to have an open-standards based web service implementation that could be hosted on a web-site or could be implemented as an excel add-in with rich interoperability. Then you can have openness, wide availability, availability to researchers who use excel and offline operation.

  5. Todd Vision says:

    Have to disagree with the comments so far. From an engineering perspective, a web app might well be preferable. But the point here is to reach large numbers of Excel users, and they will not switch to using an experimental web app that doesn’t have Excel’s familiarity and functionality. Take all the reasons that so many researchers continue to do everything from data entry through generation of figures and tables for publication within the womb of Excel and weigh that against their desire to manage their metadata better. Is there really any question where the scales tip?

  6. Tom Morris says:

    It seems crazy to be developing something as proprietary as an Excel add-in in this day and age unless your funders require it (and it sounds like they’ve just given you a get out).

    I think the download/update criteria are red herrings. It really depends on what the user experience is. My phone downloads and updates apps all the time and I never notice it.

    I also can’t see why any user would care about being “cloud based” (whatever that means) or the implementation language.

    There’s a requirement that I’m surprised isn’t on the list – traceability. If any non-trivial changes are allowed, I’d have thought you’d want a complete operation history.

    One of the commenters requested a non-Windows plugin for Excel which has me totally confused. What other platforms does it run on?

  7. Christopher Cole says:

    Carly: First, congratulations on getting approval on these specifications from Microsoft Research. This work will be of great help to researchers in making their data storeable and more importantly usable/re-usable.

    As to you specific question on plug-in vs web application: If you can only do one, stick with the plug-in. yes, it isn’t cutting edge but then again neither are the skills of many of the individuals who will be using the application. As a plug-in, you load it once and it is always available. You don’t have to be on the net or relying on the cloud for storage and services.

  8. […] you missed it, I recently posted about the future direction of the DCXL project.  I boiled it down to the question of Add-in versus web application.  The […]

  9. […] We are in the final stages of deciding how to proceed with the DCXL project, and we are still unsure what will work best for scientists: add-in for Excel or web-based application?  (For a full comparison check out my previous blog post). […]

  10. As a non-scientist IT support “monkey” supporting scientists, I’ll add that an excel add-in likely entails more IT support overhead than a web-based solution.

    From an “uptake” perspective, I’d probably go for a combination of add-in* and web-based that’s got the same branding, with some local->web/cloud integration. Perhaps the add-in would gently remind/suggest/cajole/funnel people to using a better, more standards-based solution.

    HTML5/WhateverOfflineMagic would conceivably allow use of Tablet/Mobile platforms as well, which is immensely more convenient for field recording in many instances.

    *And of course the add-in would be available for all versions of Excel, >= 2003, including Mac, and LibreOffice (Win/Mac/*nix), and Google Apps. Free pony would be optional.

  11. Aaron McGlinchy says:

    I would endorse the comments that note it is important to be able to work offline (be that by an add-in, or web-based that can function offline).

    I see the advantages of Web-based, but I do also agree that in terms of getting user uptake in the first instance I would think you’d get a better result with the add-in – ie. the tool is right there in the face of the scientist, they don’t need to go to a website…

    That said, IF web-based (with offline ability – that is I think crucial) ‘wins’, then could we not also have a simple add-in for excel that might not do the full functions, but can lead the researchers to and through the web-based tool (e.g. the can fill in some stuff via the excel addin, then at a point it takes them to the web-tool to do the parsing, testing….).

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