The Statistics Do Not Lie

Fellow columnist Peter Coffee commiserated with us recently on how hard it is to form any opinion these days that doesn't involve Microsoft. He's right.

Fellow columnist Peter Coffee commiserated with us recently on how hard it is to form any opinion these days that doesnt involve Microsoft. Hes right. Whether we are taking the company to task or, less often, praising it, the fact is that Microsofts reach is so extensive that its difficult to find substantive IT issues that dont involve Redmond directly or indirectly.

In truth, its difficult to avoid crossing paths with Microsoft even outside the office. Turn on the TV, theres MSNBC; play computer games with your kids, theres Windows. Go to your night class, as I do, and run smack into another Microsoft predicament.

Im taking quantitative analysis, aka statistics, as part of a business program. The required textbook bundles Minitab Statistical Software, a spreadsheet developed in the 1970s at Penn State University that grew into an international business. But my professor said, "Dont use Minitab, use Excel, because its the program you will most likely encounter in the workplace, and you should become used to working with it."

Heres the punch line: While having five-point summaries, box plots and histograms demonstrated for us, we realized—as did the professor (much to his chagrin)—that Minitab blows away Excel when it comes to statistical analysis.

First, Excel by default doesnt feature statistical functions. You have to use the Analysis ToolPak Add-In. Once thats installed, you have to jump through hoops to get much of the information, while Minitab includes a menu item for each function we needed. Finally, we learned, Excel doesnt do histograms correctly: Microsofts histograms look more like bar graphs, with gaps between the data points. By the end of class, we got the professor to allow us to use Minitab for our project. "You can use either one," he said.

Excel is certainly more robust than Minitab, which has a 5,000-cell data limit, and, of course, theres Microsoft Offices famous seamless integration. But the question is, Why is the leading spreadsheet on the market so lacking in these important functions? Answer: Because it can get away with it. Its not the first time Microsoft shortchanged its customers, and it wont be the last. And in a way, this negligence is a blessing, which allows a specialized niche product to survive, if not thrive.

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Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture,...