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Excel's comedy of errors needs a new script, not new scripting

Microsoft reanimates the wrong corpse

Opinion There is a perennial fad for finding deep truths in religion. Really only one concept stands up: without reincarnation, how can one explain the constant reappearance of old ideas as new in IT?

This last week has seen a couple of turns of tech's cosmic wheel. LG's 2015 V series Second Screen idea woke up in the body of the iPhone 14 Pro's Dynamic Island notch bodge.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft's brand-new rebirth has had more reruns than The Simpsons and is of equivalent antiquity. As of October 2022, the company announced, the lucky stiffs who run native Excel on PC and Mac will get – are you sitting down? – scripting.

You don't need the full list of automated worksheets, macros, VBA programming and other ways Excel has been animated over the decades. You could always do it, and people always did. This time it's Office Scripts, which is being imported from Office 365 where it already holds sway.

Microsoft talks of improving productivity, of users creating and sharing scripts across the enterprise. If you've been an admin in this particular vale of tears for any time whatsoever, you'll talk of new attack surfaces, new ways to decrease productivity and spread havoc, and generally empower users to unleash demons. Microsoft's own advice on how to manage Office Scripts starts off with stern messages about licenses, because that's what really matters, then goes on to say that Office Scripts are enabled by default and if you turn off sharing, everyone gets to keep running what they've got so far. We all know how this hymn goes.

Yes to malware scanning; yes to attachment blocking; yes to anti-phishing. But be honest now, as a highly experienced and infosec-aware admin, how do you import useful script snippets from the ghoul-infested shadowlands of the internet? You cut and paste. You Git (Sorry, that came out wrong.) You know what to trust and what you're looking at: the same tools will be available to users who don't.

Excel is already the single most dangerous tool to give to civilians. You can get things wrong in Word and PowerPoint all day long, and while they have their own security fun you're not getting things wrong through a series of tiny letterboxes behind which can live the company's most important numerical data. The Excel Blunder is its own genre of corporate terror: it brings down companies, it breaches data like a excited whale seeking sunlight, it can make a mockery of pandemic control. And because Excel is the only universal tool most users get for organizing any sort of data, the abuses and perversions it gets put to are endless.

Adding user-creatable automation to this is like handing out sticks of sweating gelignite to visitors to the British Museum and advising them to be careful. It doesn't matter what the details of the scripting language or the macro system or whatever are; they're all Turing-complete and can do anything they like.

Here's a better idea for Microsoft: why not make spreadsheets better?

Perhaps surprisingly, spreadsheet error has been very well studied [PDF]. It turns out that some Excel users are forensic accountants, data analysts and others for whom error is the enemy and who have the tools to winkle it out. Data suggests that upwards of seven in 10 spreadsheets have mistakes, with perhaps half of those running business models having significant errors.

They're great for hiding fraud and mistakes elsewhere, too. All the things you suspect cause problems – bad ergonomics, zero training in spreadsheet construction, few error detection and correction methodologies – do exactly what you think. Encourage automation and script sharing among users who can't program, let alone program securely, and those problems will be amplified. The idea that users will just record and share when there's an editor around doesn't hold water with anyone who has met them.

Microsoft has the monopoly on business spreadsheets, and we know how much effort Microsoft puts into improving monopoly products. It knows as well as we do how bad things are, how much solid research and constant pressure for improvement its most skilled and concerned users generate. It knows that the cost of entry for a competitor is overwhelming. It has the resources to rebuild spreadsheets from the ground up to tackle all the problems that come from a design that dates back 40 years.

But what does Microsoft do? Add scripting. Again.

The purpose of reincarnation is to finally achieve enlightenment and escape suffering. That does not happen when you merely repeat mistakes; it happens soonest when you seek to relieve suffering in others. Excel is trapped in a cycle of pain and its near-billion users suffer with it.

Unless Microsoft becomes more enlightened about this, the day will come when that other component of rebirth, karma, will most certainly manifest. The cosmic spreadsheet alone is free of error, and each recalc brings that final reckoning closer. Repent! ®

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