The pain of maintaining spreadsheets

by Jon

Of all the things I’ve made and put online, it’s by far my open source weight-tracking spreadsheet WTODS that’s gotten the largest and most enthusiastic response. Weight-tracking tools are a dime-a-dozen these days, but when I made WTODS back in 2007 I was in Zanzibar working off an ancient laptop with OpenOffice, no internet access, and no solution. So I made my own and shared it with the world.

I used WTODS to track my own weight for years, and as OpenOffice’s popularity grew, so did my spreadsheet. I got bugs from international users when I didn’t handle metric properly, when I hard-coded periods for decimals instead of using whatever the locale of the user specified. I got feedback and links and suggestions. It’s my most successful software project to date.

But other than adding new features, a lot of my development time has been spent just making the damn thing work with the latest versions of OpenOffice, and more recently, LibreOffice. It’s a compatibility problem first pointed out by the creator of the Hacker’s Diet itself, who ranted at Microsoft’s seemingly malicious record at breaking compatibility for his own Excel spreadsheets over the years. I thought, perhaps naively, that by creating a spreadsheet for the ODS standard, that I might be spared this nonsense.

No such luck. Sorry Mr. Walker, but it’s not just Excel – Calc’s just as annoying to keep up with. Maybe even worse- because most people don’t just jump on new versions of MS Office, whereas updates to LibreOffice are free and easy and why wouldn’t you update?

It’s been two years since I last updated WTODS, but for a while now I’ve gotten reports of it not working for various people, and I’ve finally narrowed down the source. At a core level, LibreOffice changed in version 4.1 how they handle various aspects of using Dates in code, which breaks part of the charting in WTODS. Someone was even nice enough to send me a potential fix, for which I’m very grateful, because it finally led me to understand what broke.

The problem is, if I fix it (so far I’ve been banging my head against my desk trying, as even the potential fix I was sent only kinda works) then the spreadsheet will stop working for people like me who aren’t on the latest LibreOffice. It means I need to “fix it” and abandon myself and people like me, or maintain two different versions of the sheet, or even worse, just cut out the relevant functionality and make the sheet less useful.

None of these options are appealing.

The bigger issue is that I myself don’t really use the spreadsheet that much these days, at least not on a daily basis like I used to. I use other, simpler, tools to track my weight, and I’m not as concerned with keeping a complete record for all time. I really don’t want to have to maintain this sheet forever, I mean, look, even my inspiration stopped at Excel 2003! I’ve got plenty of other projects in the works, and am finding it hard to make the time to go back and rescue WTODS.

So I’m stuck in a quandary, and I don’t know what I’m going to do next.

Still on LibreOffice 3.5.7.2,

/jon