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MarinerCalc for iPhone: A spreadsheet in the palm of your hand

The wizards at Mariner Software have been around the Apple world for a long time. Their first product, a HyperCard stack that charted stock prices, came out in 1989 as a shareware product. After twenty years of developing cool Mac apps, Mariner has just released a useful product for the iPhone: MarinerCalc, a feature-packed spreadsheet application.

During the past few days, I've been putting MarinerCalc for iPhone (US$9.99, click opens iTunes) through a series of tests on my iPhone 3G. My assessment is that MarinerCalc is an excellent spreadsheet app. If you have any need to manipulate, create, or even just view spreadsheets on your iPhone, this is the app to get.

Read more about MarinerCalc by clicking the (you guessed it!) Read More link below, and be sure to visit the gallery for plenty of MarinerCalc screenshots.
To be a usable spreadsheet on a handheld platform, an app should do three things very well:
  1. Read, write, and edit Excel spreadsheets
  2. Easily transfer spreadsheets to and from a desktop or notebook computer
  3. Provide the functionality of a desktop spreadsheet within the constraints of a handheld device
I'm glad to say that MarinerCalc performs the first two of these functions very well, and performs the third as well as can be expected with a first-generation app.

Read, write, and edit Excel spreadsheets
Microsoft Excel is the de-facto standard of the spreadsheet world, so it's logical that any other worthwhile spreadsheet application would be able to read, write, and edit Excel spreadsheets. I'm glad to say that MarinerCalc does this job well, although it wants to see everything in the .xls file format, not in the newer XML-based .xlsx format. For the time being, that's not an issue since the flagship Microsoft spreadsheet also reads and writes the "old" .xls files.

My estimation of how well a handheld spreadsheet package works is based on two things; how the handheld displays the desktop spreadsheet's formatting, and if all of the mathematical, statistical, and data functions come across from the desktop world. MarinerCalc does an outstanding job of keeping the formatting perfect between the two platforms, and it has a full function set (more info below).

One issue that I ran into when opening spreadsheets on my Mac that had been created on the iPhone is that I often needed to force calculations on the Mac. In other words, the document would open with all cells containing formulas showing "#VALUE", and I had to highlight the formula cells and press the Return key to get the calculated values to show up. This was not the case when I went in the opposite direction (from Mac to iPhone).

There's an edit function that you probably wouldn't expect in an iPhone app, but it's in MarinerCalc. There is actually a way to cut, copy, and paste cell values or formulas. This is an absolute necessity for a spreadsheet app, and it was good to see it implemented well in MarinerCalc.

MarinerCalc does a pretty good job of fitting full-size spreadsheets into a tiny iPhone screen. You can use the standard iPhone gestures to zoom in or out, flick left or right to scroll, and double-tap on a cell to edit it. Text and numeric / accounting / date formatting is made simple through a series of choice wheels from which you choose and apply formatting, colors, fonts, and more.

Easily transfer spreadsheets to and from a desktop or notebook computer
Mariner Software made a great design decision when they created this app. They could have tried to create a desktop application for Mac and Windows to allow transfers between the iPhone and the computers. If they had been truly daring, they could have figured out a way to transfer documents directly between MarinerCalc and Excel using some sort of plugin. But they took the safe route, and that path has provided a simple and fast way to move spreadsheets to and from the iPhone.

To transfer a file to the iPhone, you begin by tapping the file transfer icon at the lower left of the MarinerCalc screen. This displays the Files screen, which lists all of the spreadsheet files that are currently stored on the iPhone. At the bottom left of the Files screen is a Sharing icon. One tap of the icon turns on sharing and displays the IP address at which you can reach MarinerCalc on the iPhone.

Next, you fire up your favorite web browser and point it to the IP address displayed by MarinerCalc. What you see is an image of an iPhone showing the MarinerCalc Files screen. To download a file off of the iPhone, you click on the file image and it is immediately downloaded to your default download location on the Mac. To upload a file from your computer to the iPhone, click on the Choose File button and a standard Mac or Windows Open dialog appears. You select the file, click Open, and the file is immediately transferred to the iPhone.

Could Mariner Software have developed a special desktop package to do the transfers? Of course! But I'm glad they didn't. Every Mac and PC has a web browser, and that's all you need (in addition to a common Wi-Fi network for the desktop and iPhone) to move files back and forth. I applaud Mariner's decision to use web browsers for file transfers and focus on the core functionality of the spreadsheet app instead of trying to make Mac and PC clients.

Provide the functionality of a desktop spreadsheet application within the constraints of a handheld device
It is in this third category that MarinerCalc needs a tiny bit of work. When you consider that it is the first release of the package, it does its job very well. But compared to a full-functioned Mac or Windows spreadsheet package like Excel or MarinerCalc for Mac, it is missing some capabilities.

I found the icon for MarinerCalc for iPhone to be a bit misleading. It shows a standard spreadsheet column/row grid with a pie chart emblazoned over it. I immediately expected MarinerCalc to provide charting functions, which it does not. It turns out that MarinerCalc for iPhone uses the same icon as the MarinerCalc for Mac file icon.

WIll those charting capabilities be added in the future? That's up to Mariner Software. At the present time, though, the app has a plethora of functions -- 145 functions, to be exact. Thost functions are divided up into math, financial, trigonmetric, statistical, lookup, logic, date/time, text and info functions.

There is no macro capability, so if your spreadsheet solution requires you to run macros, you're out of luck. Likewise, you're not going to get some of the advanced functions that you'll see in Excel -- like pivot tables or advanced data analysis tools.

While a handheld spreadsheet app probably doesn't need all of the bells and whistles that a desktop application does, a minimal ability to view and edit charts would be helpful, and I hope Mariner Software takes this on as their next revision to MarinerCalc.

Another thing you currently can't do -- no fault of Mariner Software here -- is print a spreadsheet from the iPhone to a wireless printer. I'd love to see Mariner work with HP to see if they could extend iPrint Photo to work with MarinerCalc. Can you imagine making changes to a spreadsheet on your iPhone on the way to a meeting, then printing out copies of it over Wi-Fi to a nearby printer? Maybe next year...

Tutorial and Help
I was happy to see that Mariner provided a short tutorial document with the app. The tutorial is in the form of a multi-page spreadsheet covered with text instructions on everything from how gestures work on the iPhone to how to make a reference to another sheet in a workbook. This tiny mini-manual is enough to get anybody started if they're smart enough to launch the app, since it appears on the Files screen when MarinerCalc is open.

In case you don't remember what all of those 145+ functions can be used for, there's also a built-in help capability for functions. Just highlight one and tap the Help button, and a transparent dialog appears on the screen with helpful advice.

What are the available alternatives to MarinerCalc for iPhone? A quick spin through the iTunes App Store showed the aptly-named Spreadsheet (click opens iTunes), Spreadsheet LX, Documents / Document Free, iSpreadsheet, and Plus, among others. In the near future, you can expect DocumentsToGo from DataViz, which should be a huge competitor to MarinerCalc for iPhone.

The reason I prefer MarinerCalc for iPhone over most of these other iPhone spreadsheet apps is that it comes from a company with a good long history of doing quality software development in the Mac world. Sure, the iPhone isn't a Mac, but that experience really seems to come across in terms of the user experience with this application.

I am more impressed with MarinerCalc than I thought I would be. I've been working with handheld spreadsheet apps for almost ten years, and MarinerCalc for iPhone is the first that I've felt I could actually use. It's fast, has a great user interface, a full set of built-in functions, and it's easy to transfer spreadsheets to and from other computers.

If you're using another of the iPhone spreadsheet apps, let us know how you like it in the comments section. MarinerCalc users? Let us know if you concur with my evaluation of this app.

The wizards at Mariner Software have been around the Apple world for a long time. Their first product, a HyperCard stack that charted stock...