Having just purchased a copy of Office 2013 (no, really) I’ve just started to use it for serious work and immediately found the new cell animations in Excel to be irritating. What Microsoft don’t seem to grasp is that the people really making Excel the powerhouse that it is are the hardcore users, you know the type – they’re often management accountants, business intelligence developers, data warehousing types who handle large volumes of data constantly. Most businesses only have small number of these ‘Excel Elite’ who get called upon to solve problems, design spreadsheets and generally keep the whole Excel ecosystem afloat and what do they want? They want simple, predictable behaviour, consistent across new versions and nothing that causes distraction or having to re-learn where to find features (Ribbon I’m looking at you).
Excel 2013′s latest addition to the ‘irritation toolkit’ is animated cell selection. This feature genuinely benefits nobody and serves only to add lag to cell selection, even on new powerful new PCs since the animation needs time to complete otherwise you wouldn’t see it. So, how do you disable it? Well, it’s not as simple as a setting in Excel – this is a setting in Windows (I’m running Windows 8 by the way), the risk here is that you’ll be disabling something else fancy that you do want but if you’re a heavy Excel user this will be much more worthwhile I expect.
To disable cell selection animations:
- Go to Control Panel.
- Search for “Performance” (actually, just “Perf” will do).
- Click on “Adjust the appearance and performance of Windows”.
- Un-tick the “Animate controls and elements inside windows” option and click “OK”.
Screenshots of the main screens are below should you have trouble finding the options…
I registered as an iPhone developer earlier this year primarily to get my hands on the pre-release iOS upgrades but recently I was asked to help design the user interface for a BI-related smartphone application and it started my brain ticking. When it comes down to it I’m a BI + SQL guy and it’s been a long time since I’ve actually gotten my hands dirty with real coding (remember the BBC Micro anyone?) but I have spent time on-and-off dabbling with PHP, HTML, CSS and Visual Basic as well as having managed a couple of development projects so whilst I’m rusty I’ve not been totally out of the loop.
- Content – what is the app for?
- Styling – how can I achieve the iPhone look-and-feel?
- Compilation – how to turn a website into an executable binary?
- Publication – what do I need to do to release my creation in the wild?
Since I knew I’d be putting some time into it I didn’t want to build an application that was just a glorified tech demo, I wanted to build an app that serves a valid purpose and that doesn’t exist already which was quite tricky. Fortune was clearly smiling on me since I started working on this project in the same week that I went for a short break to Bratislava (it’s lovely by the way, you should go), being a vegetarian one of my pre-holiday tasks is to find out how to say “I am vegetarian” in the local language and for that I use the International Vegetarian Union’s Vegetarian Phrases in World Languages. It’s a great resource and I usually just print the phrases to take them with me but then I had the lightbulb moment – wouldn’t it be brilliant if I had an app that did this? Thankfully the manager of the IVU agreed with me and so I had my concept – a veggie phrasebook.
Next came the styling issue, if you’ve been an iPhone user for a while you’ll be used to the default look-and-feel that comes with most iOS applications and I had no idea how I was going to recreate that. Thankfully I’m not the first person to have hit this brick wall and developers with skills that are orders of magnitude better than mine have built a number of solutions, the best one out there in my opinion is JQTouch, a JQuery plugin that mimics the native iPhone styling as well as providing excellent navigation animations. A demo of JQTouch is available here: JQTouch Demo and is will only work if viewed on an iPhone or Android handset or in a WebKit browser (e.g. Safari or Chrome).
My general approach to learning new technologies tends to be very simple: just start - sure, you’ll get it wrong and it might be frustrating for a while but you’ll be learning all the way and come out the other end battle-scarred but victorious. Thankfully JQTouch fits my methodology perfectly, there’s no installation to speak of, just download and unzip the package and dive in there with your favourite text editor (I’m fond of TextWrangler on Mac and Notepad++ on Windows). JQTouch essentially uses one giant HTML file with divs for each ‘page’ of the application, the file includes the JQTouch libraries and a couple of CSS theme files and image sets – one in black (as per the demo) and one titled ‘Apple’ which looks very much like the settings page of the iPhone.
Having assembled the content, built the base HTML pages and customised the theme my next concern was how to turn it into a compiled app. It’s quite nice being able to run the entire app in a browser window but I wouldn’t quite feel like I’d regained my developer strips without a bona-fide compiled app and there are a few toolkits out there that will help achieve that. The most interesting toolkit to me right now is Appcelerator Titanium which looks powerful but might take some ‘discovery’ time and since I wanted to do the best possible job but in the shortest possible timescale I opted for PhoneGap, a cross-platform toolkit that allowed me to literally copy and paste my web root folder and make a compilable Xcode project almost immediately (seriously, read their Getting Started).
If you’re new to Apple development in general, Xcode is Apple’s development environment for both Mac and iOS applications and comes bundled with the OS as standard – it’s a little like Visual Studio in that it’s an IDE but the similarities end pretty quickly after the obvious. Personally I find Xcode to be a little fiddly and not as intuitive as Visual Studio but that could be a little bias from having spent a lot more time in the Microsoft camp when it comes to development. Nonetheless, Xcode is a great IDE and other than spending the best part of three hours trying to nail down my digital certificate signing chain (what happened to “it just works”?) it became surprisingly easy to debug the app on my iPhone and build the final version of the app.
My secret weapon in this whole process was (believe it or not) the data professional’s Swiss Army Knife – Excel. I’ve often said that if you could teach even half of the world’s office workers how to use Excel properly you could change the world and I believe that the same is true even for the classically technical professions who eschew the GUI over scripting methods. Excel’s blend of spacial referencing and a comprehensive function library make it an ideal code generator and I regularly use it to write large batches of SQL – this time I simply copied the IVU phrases into a spreadsheet, sorted and categorised them and used formulae to generate the best part of over 4,500 lines of HTML – even the menus came from Pivot Tables.
A little bit of tweaking and I was ready to submit the binary to Apple for approval, but that’s enough for now so I’ll talk a little more about the submission process in a future post. Sure, there might be a few kinks round the edges but I think it’s a reasonably good first app and I’ve gained a stack of good experience building it which over the coming months I intend to share in a series of posts.
If you’d like to take a look please check out my Veggie Phrases app page or you can try it out (it’s free) here…
I enjoy going to SQL Server community events, I usually find they provide a refreshing look at what other people are doing and provide inspiration and ideas of what I could be doing myself. Vendor-run events are different so I attended Microsoft’s SQL Server 2008 R2 Tech Days event with mixed expectations, not sure if it was going to overly marketing-heavy or whether it really would be worth taking a day out of the office.
Thankfully I was in luck, Microsoft did a great job of treading the line between promotion and information and whilst the intro and the first 5-10 mins of each take were quite marketing oriented the majority of the content was realistic and provided honest demonstrations of the product. Also throughout the talks presenters were offering to answer questions via SMS or via the Twitter hash-tag #uktechdays, this was a great touch and even though there wasn’t time to answer all of the questions it really added to the interactivity of the event.
First up was Power Pivot, as a product it looks to be immensely powerful and provides lightning fast analytical capabilities though I imagine it needs a decent amount of RAM and an up to date processor to achieve it – the most amazing part is that it’s a free add-in for Excel 2010! Essentially PowerPivot allows you to extract up to a million records from a database and perform in-memory analysis with that set of data, including combining it with other data sets, combining it with data in your spreadsheet, performing calculations, making summaries, etc. It’s well worth taking a look at the demos, PowerPivot is a massive leap forward in Excel’s capabilities but to me it seems like a step backwards in terms of the centralised BI ‘single version of the truth’ concept – allowing users to rip a million rows out of the Data Warehouse, mix them up with other data sources and then send them around via email or even publish them via SharePoint. As it goes the Share Point integration was also pretty remarkable, allowing other users to use published reports not only for viewing but also as a data source on which to build new reports – pretty ground breaking stuff but I’d hate to be the guy debugging a report based on a report based on a report based on… (you get where I’m going). Overall I’d give PowerPivot a 5* rating for innovation but it seems that Microsoft is using a common tactic from Formula One – trying to get ahead of the competition by taking a contrary strategy, but will it turn out like Jenson Button in Shanghai (he won) or like Lewis Hamilton in Australia (he didn’t)?
After a relatively dry talk on virtualisation and Hyper-V Live Migration (impressive stuff but I’ve seen it before) the next talk was about Report Builder 3 and having never been a user of Reporting Services I thought I was just going to sit through it and twiddle my thumbs – I was wrong. Having been knocking about in the BI world for about 8 years or so I can really say that this release of Report Builder really cements Microsoft’s position in Business Intelligence. It’s still not very slick from a usability standpoint but the visualisations they’ve added are stunning and having been a long-time user of Business Objects the talk actually did make me think “how hard would it be to switch?” – since I have a mature installation the answer is very hard but it still made me think. The most impressive visual elements were the Spark Lines, Data Bars and Indicators but the maps were also pretty good especially given that you can use ESRI shape files.
The next talk was “Maximising your existing hardware CPU, memory and disk” by Ramesh Meyyappan, I’ve seen Ramesh before at SQLBits and he’s always very good, very detailed and straight to the point. It was a great talk, taking place mainly in Management Studio rather than PowerPoint and if you get the chance to see one of Ramesh’s talkes in the future you should definitely go (but have a cup of coffee first). Following Ramesh’s rollercoaster of a talk was much more relaxing run-through of Microsoft’s ‘database in the cloud’ offering SQL Azure, a product I find extremely interesting but don’t have an immediate use for though I expect in time as the feature-set converges with SQL Server I will be changing my mind. Next up was StreamInsight, R2′s Complex Event Processing (CEP) solution for analysing large data streams (10k rows/sec+) on the fly without touching the relational engine – it looks interesting but I don’t have those sorts of requirements at the moment so I don’t have much of a reaction. The day was rounded off by a presentation by Andrew Fryer about Master Data Services, a difficult topic to present in a jazzy way but it looks very interesting and if it will integrate with the spaghetti-junction of systems floating around in most organisations it could do a lot to help us keep our data warehouses in line with corporate naming conventions, it sounds like a lot of fuss over a little issue but if you’ve ever actually tried to solve the problem yourself in a company with more than a couple of source systems you’ll understand how hard it can be.
All in all a good day, I’ll give a shout out to the staff at Jumbucks in Shepherd’s Bush where I had breakfast and bought a bagful of Australian confectionary and to the Vegetarian Chinese buffet over the road for providing me with much needed sustenance.
Categories: Business Intelligence, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft SQL Server, Reporting Services, The Cloud Tags: 2008 R2, excel, F1, Formula 1, Hyper-V, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Master Data, Microsoft, Microsoft SQL Server, powerpivot, Report Builder, Report Builder 3, Reporting Services, SharePoint, sql, SQL 2008 R2, SQL Azure, SQL Server, SQL Server 2008 R2, SQLBits, StreamInsight, Tech Days, Twitter, Virtualisation