Airtable – A true spreadsheet / database hybrid?

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Lots of the software of the world is written in Microsoft’s Excel. A spreadsheet environment lends itself particularly well to addressing everyday computing problems. Compiling tabular data, creating connections between particular pieces of that data, condensing and aggregating over a dataset’s values. These are common tasks a spreadsheet solves very well with no need for complex database or application server software.

A spreadsheet is a flexible tool that provides simple, responsive and instant feedback to data input and algorithm changes. However flexible, what keeps spreadsheets from being useful as general next-generation computing tools is their lack of scalability and the maintenance headaches they cause.

Airtable is a self-proclaimed spreadsheet-database hybrid: An online spreadsheet application that’s backed by a robust database backend. The web app allows you to create new spreadsheets from pre-populated templates such as ‘Personal CRM’, ‘Sales Leads’ or ‘Applicant Tracking’. Entering data is just as easy as entering data in a normal spreadsheet but instead of a fragile spreadsheet file that’s hard to share and collaborate on the data ends up in a scalable database. Not only does this approach allow you to collaborate on a spreadsheet easily but it also provides several features that are not normally possible with spreadsheets or at least not without incurring a performance hit:

  • Complex filtering and sorting
  • Inline linking of database tables
  • Table views

What sets Airtable apart from competitors such as Google Docs is it’s really decent UI, which includes a good mobile user experience, too. It’s still far from being on par with competitors such as Microsoft Excel in terms of cell content manipulation, formatting or calculations. Currently, it’s more of a very decent tabular data entry and presentation tool. I suppose, Airtable will really begin to shine once they release their API and open up the underlying database for direct manipulation via SQL. This way you could easily and quickly enter data first and afterwards build complex, scalable apps upon that.

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