“The evolution of spreadsheets” is a bold claim, and warrants a bold explanation. To show Grist’s evolution, let’s look at its influences.

Why spreadsheets?

Spreadsheets are everywhere and used for everything. Often, spreadsheets become “business applications” because they can be created without a developer. In these cases, a spreadsheet serves as both a data store and a UI.

People also use spreadsheets instead of apps built specifically for their use case (instead of JIRA for project management, or Salesforce for CRM, for example). Just as often, they’ll use spreadsheets for niche business use cases instead of building a custom app. Why?

  • Simplicity: Spreadsheets are familiar and well-understood. They make sense to look at and use.
  • Flexibility: Adding columns, making calculations, creating charts and pivot tables – all these are easy to do with spreadsheets like Excel and Google Sheets. Extending more specialized apps is either impossible or expensive.
  • Little Spreadsheet Features We Take For Granted That Other Apps Rarely Get Right: Copy/pasting multiple rows or columns, undo/redo, printing a page of data, basic charts, conditional styling, cell comments, etc.

But spreadsheets have problems. Entering and storing data is error prone. Data separated into different tables — such as customers and their orders — cannot be easily related to one another. They’re also a poor foundation for developers to build upon, often requiring rebuilding a solution from scratch if things get out of hand.

Here’s how Grist evolves upon the spreadsheet:

  1. Grist is relational from the ground up – adding the best of database design.
  2. Grist is collaborative from the ground up – with permissions down to the individual row.
  3. Grist extends the usual spreadsheet formulas with full Python support and an AI Formula Assistant.

Why databases?

Relational databases underlie most modern software. They solve important data storage issues: reliability, performance, scalability, interoperability, and versioning.

But databases don’t come with a nice UI. Actually using a database requires either a separate interface app or direct SQL querying.

A database usually has an application built on top of it to fulfill primary needs. But for various secondary needs (making unanticipated changes, generating reports, or having an “admin console”), developers have to either build special functionality or handle a stream of requests manually. This can be inefficient.

Grist evolves upon the database literally, using it as a structure on which the primary and secondary needs are met for all users, not just developers.

Why not apps? Or app builders?

There are a lot of apps out there. Chances are there’s an app developed for almost any use case you can think of. There are even apps that build apps, with no coding required. Why not use one of those?

As described on our About Us page: “Grist is general purpose. It is not opinionated. The long tail of use cases matters.”

Just as the spreadsheet became a platform for so many use cases, Grist’s evolution aims to retain that trait.

Often, appification and no-code flexibility come with compromises – especially when it comes to data ownership. Grist’s commitment to open source means that you can always self-host and export your data in full (with all relationships intact), providing full digital sovereignty to those who need it. It also means that if you hit a technical roadblock, you have the option to audit, edit, and extend Grist’s core instead of rebuilding from scratch.

With Grist, you can build app-like dashboards on top of a database, modifying data with a familiar spreadsheet UI. You retain control of your data, from SQL to HTML.

Continued evolution

Grist is an app builder/database/spreadsheet hybrid. By connecting these three classes of software, Grist aims to bridge the gap between developers and non-developers, providing value along the continuum of users.

Like a spreadsheet, it’s a productivity tool. On top of the spreadsheet, it adds app-like views and access rules. Underneath, it uses a relational database as a reliable, scalable foundation upon which developers can build.

But the evolution of software isn’t just about features. Grist Labs leans heavily on its values, which have as much a hand in shaping the end product as anything. Being open source, you don’t even have to trust us.

Grist continues to evolve. There is a learning curve to smooth out and there are technical limitations to push out. Hopefully this gives you a sense of Grist’s trajectory, but please take a look at our roadmap, follow us on GitHub or check out our Community Forum.