March 8, 2006

A first look at wikiCalc

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Dan Bricklin, co-creator of VisiCalc, is at it again. Bricklin is working on wikiCalc, a Web-based spreadsheet application. It's not quite ready for prime time yet, but it does show promise.

Bricklin describes wikiCalc as "a Web authoring tool for pages that include data that is more than just unformatted prose." To put that another way, it's not a full-featured spreadsheet application, it's an online wiki-like tool that uses a spreadsheet metaphor for working with data.

I took wikiCalc for a test drive to see if it would be suitable for some spreadsheets used by the editorial team at OSTG.

Installing wikiCalc

The installation method for wikiCalc differs by operating system and according to how you plan to access the software. You can find the tarball and zipfile for wikiCalc on the "Installing wikiCalc as a Perl program" page. A Windows installer is also available.

To start wikiCalc on a local computer, simply run perl wikicalc.pl. You'll then be able to load the wikiCalc page at http://localhost:6556/. You can change the port number by editing WKC.pm:

our %config_values => (socket = 6555);

You can also run wikiCalc on your server if you prefer. The download includes a CGI script (wikicalccgi.pl) and a mod_perl script (wikicalcmodperl.pl). See the installation instructions for a full install guide.

Whether you're running wikiCalc as a local app or as a CGI/mod_perl application, it shouldn't take more than 10 minutes to set it up, as long as you don't need to set up mod_perl or CGI support for your server as well.

Using wikiCalc

After playing with wikiCalc for a few days, I'm impressed with how much functionality it has already. Since it's a Web-based application, it does have some limitations, but with it you can create a simple spreadsheet and edit it using Firefox, Konqueror, or another browser.

Some spreadsheet functionality just doesn't translate well to Web-based applications, however. If you use spreadsheets on a regular basis, you're probably used to being able to do simple things easily -- like expand the width of a column just by clicking and dragging.

With wikiCalc, changing a column's width requires going to the "Format" page, and then setting the width for a column. Setting the background color for an entire column all at once isn't possible, as far as I can tell, though you can set the background (or other formatting options) for a range of cells.

However, wikiCalc does replicate some spreadsheet functionality pretty well. For example, you can set wikiCalc to move you to the right into the next cell, or down one cell, after you press Enter -- just as you can with a normal spreadsheet. This is useful for rapid data entry, and a good way to create basic tables for a Web site. The formatting options are pretty extensive; wikiCalc gives fine-grained control over cell borders, colors, and text formatting.

You can use some simple functions with wikiCalc -- addition, subtraction, division, sum -- but it doesn't support anything really complex.

WikiCalc also has a feature that allows it to publish to another site via FTP. This could be pretty handy if you're using wikiCalc locally to generate your files, and want to publish them to the company site. I hope, as wikiCalc evolves, that Bricklin will add the ability to use secure FTP as well as regular FTP.

You also have the option of setting up users and restricting editing to specific users, rather than leaving pages open to anyone to edit. This is pretty useful for anyone who wants to deploy wikiCalc on a publicly accessible server.

For an alpha program, wikiCalc seemed stable and useful, but not as speedy as one might like. Some operations in wikiCalc are a bit slow, and it's somewhat clunky compared to working with a program like Gnumeric. For some reason, wikiCalc seemed a bit faster when using Konqueror than Firefox.

The only real problem I ran into when using wikiCalc, other than speed, was CSV file import. I tried to import a few CSV files, but no dice -- the data simply didn't show up in the spreadsheet. Exporting to CSV, however, seems to work just fine.

If you test out wikiCalc, you might check the known bugs page. It can be useful if you're wondering whether you've hit a bug in wikiCalc or your browser (or both).

Future of wikiCalc

WikiCalc is still in development, so expect a lot of improvements and new features as the program matures. Since wikiCalc is GPLed, I can also see it being integrated into other packages, in much the same way that TinyMCE has been rolled into WordPress 2.0.

I can't imagine wikiCalc ever being a replacement for a program like Microsoft Excel, Gnumeric, or OpenOffice.org's Calc -- but it could fill a niche for online collaboration, or for users who use spreadsheets as I usually do -- for simple "databases," or as a quick budget sheet. It's also a nice way to create tables for online use. If you've ever mucked with MediaWiki formatting, for example, to create a table, you know it's not pleasant.

For now, the OSTG editors will stick with Gnumeric or OpenOffice.org Calc for creating spreadsheets to track articles. At the moment, wikiCalc is too slow and clunky to switch.

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