Smart spreadsheets, and use of spreadsheets as a tool for regular programming

I love spreadsheets. It’s possibly the best programming tool ever created. But I would like them to be even smarter. In Excel you will normally have to define an expression as just one single line, for example

=A1 * IF(A1>10;2;3)

which is not very readable. Why not make it possible to apply normal code, like for example Kotlin, in a spreadsheet? Instead of a one-liner there could be a real multi-line expression, like

val factor = a1 > 10 ? 2 : 3
a1 * factor

Define functions
Further, it should be possible to define your own functions, like we do in regular programming, so that we are not limited by the pre-defined functions defined in Excel (or other spreadsheet software).

Static typing and OOP
Excel is all procedural, with all functions in one global namespace. You don’t have the possibility to go on an object and call methods. By using Kotlin as the language for the spreadsheet, it would be possible to, for example, go on an int and get suggestions to the possible methods to call.
It would also be possible to define your own classes and use them in the spreadsheet.

Use spreadsheets as part of regular programming
In many cases spreadsheets would be easier to navigate than regular “pure” code. Of course we should not solve all our programming problems with a spreadsheet, but I think it would be very useful to use spreadsheets as part of regular programming.


val sheet = StockAnalysisSpreadsheet(stocks)
val scorePerStock : Map<Stock, Double> = sheet.scorePerStock

The StockAnalysisSpreadsheet class that derives from AutoGeneratedStockAnalyisSpreadsheet which is generated by the spreadsheet software:

class StockAnalysisSpreadsheet(stocks: List<Stock>) extends AutoGeneratedStockAnalyisSpreadsheet(stocks) {

  val scorePerStock : Map<Stock, Double>
    get() = b15 // All cells in the spreadsheet are available here as properties

Here we send stocks as an input to the sheet, and we get out a score for each stock. We can add more getters if we want access to more cells.

(There may be lots of improvements here. Extension functions may be a better approach than an auto generated class.)

This might seem a bit confusing, but try to imagine the opportunities to feed a spreadsheet with values from the code. Here the stocks may go to b1 in the spread sheet, and the values get extracted to proceding columns. Then calculations are applied on these values, before we finally get the Scores in b15. A difference for normal spread sheets is that we can have a list within a specific cell, b1 is a List<Stock>. Then we apply operations to each single stock in b2, b3 etc. Let’s b2 contains the Price to earnings-ratios:

When a cell contains a list, the cell will get many sub cells, and as long as we keep the lists parallel (b1[5] represents same entity (in this case stock) as b2[5]) we can easily compare the values as in a normal spreadsheet, while keeping it dynamic. While developing, we can use example data as input. In this case we would specify a list of stocks that go to b1, and we will see how the values change why we create the spreadsheet.

Smarter spreadsheet, and mix between spread sheets and regular code would be useful especially in data science/quant analysis, and function as a bridge between programmers and quant analysts.

I guess there will be some questions here. If you are interested, I can create some more examples on this idea (and it’s just an idea yet, nothing is developed so far).

What do you think? Does something like this already exist?

I may not be following the same threads of thought as you, here - just throwing around some ideas.

First, having done a little bit of Office programming, I’ll mention a couple of things. VBA is a painful programming environment not only because it’s not really OOP but also because the source lives inside the binary spreadsheet, so you can’t easily do diffs etc. when working with version control. You can manipulate Office apps / files from outside via COM, so then you can use whatever language you like, but that’s pretty awkward, too.

More interesting (to me) is the idea that spreadsheets are a handy GUI for a constrained form of Dataflow programming. Reactive programming can be seen as something similar: user edits to non-formula cells as new values in “hot” streams, and cell formulae as the expressions you use to combine streams. Whether the stream values are scalars, lists, or whatever doesn’t matter to a reactive program.

The other thing spreadsheets add over the basic dataflow/reactive approach is having 1D or 2D operations across ranges of cells. I can vaguely imagine some code for having “reactive nodes” in lists, grids, or indeed and structure you like, and composite operations across such structures.

Hope those are some useful thoughts, despite being quite abstract!

Smarter spreadsheets has a name: “Python Pandas”. I ignore if there is some related project based on Kotlin right now.