Excel vs. Google Sheets usage — nature and numbers

Life with Spreadsheets
August 28, 2018

Lately, I have been thinking quite a lot about spreadsheets, their nature, origin and ubiquity. This has led to many interesting conversations both online and off-.

One of the most common questions I get is if Excel is still important, implying that “everybody” must be using Google Sheets by now. This happens to be something I’ve dug into quite a bit. Below are my findings.

Spreadsheets by the numbers

Numbers about spreadsheet usage are surprisingly hard to come by. The reason — at least partially — is that spreadsheets are not covered separately by industry analysts, but fall under the larger “office suites” or “productivity suites” umbrella.

On that front, Microsoft dominates revenue-wise, taking in $13.8B in 2016 compared with G Suite’s $1.3B. Others’ market share is negligible.

But revenue isn’t everything. What about user numbers?

Microsoft claims no less than 1.2 billion users of Microsoft Office, but even if those all theoretically “have” Excel, that doesn’t mean that they use it. In a brilliant talk at CSVconf a couple of years ago, Jenny Brian estimated that about 2/3 of Excel’s install base ever use it. That would land us at an impressive 800 million users for Microsoft Excel.

Google does not disclose the total number of G Suite users, but early this year they announced passing 4 million paying G Suite customers. On average, there will be a number of users behind each customer account, ranging from 1–2 users in a startup to Colgate Palmolive’s 250,000 users. So, behind the 4 million customer number the users clearly count in the tens of millions, perhaps as much as 100 million. Then there are the free users. Late last year, Google’s educational program alone accounted for 70 million users of G Suite, and it’s safe to assume that at least as many users are using the free non-educational version. While involving a good amount of guesswork, this brings the order of magnitude of users that “have” Google Sheets to around the 250 million users mark. Applying Jenny’s 2/3 estimate here would land us around 160–180 million Google Sheets users. Still impressive, but less than a quarter of Excel’s base.

The demographics

Based on various literature and my conversations with a broad range of spreadsheets users, there is a clear demographical difference between Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel.

Young people use Google Sheets. Ask a college kid and they are much more likely to use Sheets than Excel. The exceptions are mostly in subjects such as finance and engineering where Excel’s superior capabilities still make it a favorite (see more below).

Young companies are also more likely to use Google Sheets than Microsoft Excel. If a company was started in the last 10 years, they are likely to be “born in the cloud”, and favor cloud-based (and historically largely free) services like Google Sheets over (historically) client-side software like Excel.

But … when a young person joins an established organization they get the Microsoft Office suite thrown at them immediately, and get dragged into the Excel world quickly. This probably means that Excel’s market share is falling significantly slower than might be indicated by Sheets’ dominance in the education system.

To be fair, there is also a significant overlap between Sheets and Excel users. In the corporate world, this is particularly noticeable with employees at established companies that have realized the superior collaboration capabilities of Google Sheets, and will make use of it when the nature of a project calls for it. This is often (read: usually) without the knowledge or permission of their corporate IT departments, also known as “shadow IT”.

The “pros” use Excel

The last, but not least important aspect of Sheets vs. Excel is that all serious spreadsheet nerds use Excel. On Windows. To them Excel for Mac is vastly inferior. The reasons being a lack of data connections and the absence of PowerPivot on the Mac side among other things.

These users see Google Sheets as a mere toy: Sluggish, and lacking many basic capabilities. The “pros” (I’ll write more about spreadsheet user levels soon) may admit to occasionally using Office 365 Online or Google Sheets to publish some of their simpler findings, but apart from that they live and breathe in the Windows Excel client.

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So, yes — while Google Sheets is definitely still gaining a lot of steam, Excel is still the 800 pound gorilla in the spreadsheet market, and will remain so in the foreseeable future.

This article has also been published on Medium.

Hjalmar Gislason

Founder and CEO of GRID. Curious about data, technology, media, the universe and everything. Founder of 5 software companies.

About GRID

GRID gives spreadsheets wings. A Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) startup, GRID’s user-friendly software empowers people to turn any spreadsheet into a beautiful web report, dashboard or interactive application.

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