Designer Josh Leong was growing impatient with Microsoft. After spending a few years working his way up the chain from designing icons to helping design Flash Fill, one of Excel 2013's best new features, Leong didn't feel like he was making much of an impact. While working on Excel, he stumbled upon a Microsoft research paper titled "Excel: It's Not About The Math." It detailed how people all over the world were using Excel for everything from cataloging garage sales to keeping track of entire businesses on Etsy. Beyond that, these people were increasingly inserting images and other kinds of content into their spreadsheets, but with little success. The research paper was, for the most part, ignored. Microsoft's most lucrative customer, however, is the enterprise licensee, not the craftsman.
"You have to change the foundation and the frame to be able to put in more [than numbers]," Leong says, "to be able to put in all the things the internet gave us over the last twenty years." In an elevator one day, a senior colleague murmured "I promised myself I'd leave two years ago. It's been six years." Several months later, Leong has left Microsoft, founded a company called Binary Thumb, and is today launching his first mobile app Grid for iOS.
Upon first opening Grid, the app welcomes you with a tutorial that emits an array of vibrant chimes and violin plucks as you complete each step. "Swipe up for the Maestro menu," the app beckons. It's an obvious play to make the user feel powerful, like a master of spreadsheets — opposite how the average user might feel upon opening Excel for the first time. You can swipe to select one or more boxes, and then insert one of four kinds of content in each box: text, a photo, a friend's contact picture, or a map. You can drag and drop things, resize pictures and text, and change font sizes. There's no math, no macros, and no numerical formulas. Grid's scope is limited. In fact, it shares more in common with a sheet of graph paper than with Excel. By shunning the traditional utility of spreadsheets, Grid has also made itself a lot less useful.
Grid is not "Excel for iPad" as much as it is a digital scrapbook laid out on a grid — until Leong gets around to adding basic formula creation, at least. The app's most outwardly impressive feature turns out to be collaborative editing, an incredibly well-executed experience that proves Google hasn't been doing enough on mobile with group documents. If you have the same Grid open on two or more iOS devices, changes made to one instantly affect the others — and there's no iCloud involved. You can witness friends adding images and resizing maps, and you can even see where a friend's cursor is onscreen. Grid presents collaborative editing as a game, instead of as a productivity experience, which is refreshing.
Grid is not 'Excel for iPad' as much as it is a digital scrapbook laid out on a grid
While you can't actually do a lot with Grid, despite lay out some text and photos, it proves that there's still much work to be done in the mobile productivity space. On one side of the coin is Paper, FiftyThree's drawing app, and on the other, perhaps, is Grid, Leong's more regimented productivity app. The two apps even share a similar tagline. Paper's is "Where Ideas Begin," while Grid's is "Where Your Ideas Fit." FiftyThree has demonstrated its desire to create "the Office suite of the future," and there's no doubt Grid does too. Grid can't as fluently become your digital spreadsheet like Paper can become your digital notebook, but it's one of several apps that seem to have the right idea as we enter the next age of digital productivity.