Get going with EtherCalc, a web-based alternative to Google Sheets

EtherCalc is an open source spreadsheet that makes it easy to work remotely and collaborate with others.
163 readers like this
163 readers like this
Open data brain

Opensource.com

Spreadsheets can be very useful—and not just for managing your finances. That said, desktop spreadsheets have their limitations. The biggest is that you need to be at your computer to use one. On top of that, collaborating on a spreadsheet can quickly become a messy affair.

Enter EtherCalc, an open source, web-based spreadsheet. While not as fully featured as a desktop spreadsheet, EtherCalc packs enough features for most people.

Let's take a look at how to get started using it.

Getting EtherCalc

If you're self-hosting, you can download the code, get it through Sandstorm.io, or use npm (the Node.js package manager) to install it on a server.

But what if you don't have a server? You can use one of the many hosted instances of EtherCalc—for example, at EtherCalc.org, the instance hosted by the folks at Framasoft, or use it through Sandstorm Oasis.

What can you use EtherCalc for?

Just about everything you'd use a desktop spreadsheet for. That could be to balance your budget, track your savings, record your income, schedule meetings, or take an inventory of your possessions.

I've used EtherCalc to track time on freelance projects, to create invoices for those projects, and even to share article ideas with my fellow Opensource.com community moderators. How you use EtherCalc is up to your needs and your imagination.

Working with EtherCalc

The first step is to create a spreadsheet.

Empty EtherCalc spreadsheet

If you've used a desktop or web-based spreadsheet before, EtherCalc will look somewhat familiar. As with any spreadsheet, you type what you need to type in the cells on the sheet. The includes column headings, labels, and functions (more on those in a moment).

Before you do anything else, bookmark the URL to your spreadsheet. EtherCalc uses randomly generated URLs—for example, https://ethercalc.org/9krfqj2en6cke—which aren't easy to remember.

Formatting your spreadsheet

To add formatting to your spreadsheet, highlight the cell or cells that you want to format and click the Format menu.

EtherCalc's Format menu

You can add borders and padding, change fonts and their attributes, align text, and change the format of numbers, for example to dates or currency formats. When you're done, click the Save to: button to apply the formatting.

Adding functions

Functions enable you to add data, manipulate data, and make calculations in a spreadsheet. They can do a lot more, too.

To add a function to your spreadsheet, click a cell. Then, click the Function button on the toolbar.

EtherCalc Function button

That opens a list all of the functions EtherCalc supports, along with a short description of what each function does.

EtherCalc Functions list

Select the function you want to use, then click Paste. EtherCalc adds the function, along with an opening parenthesis, to the cell. Type what you need to after the parenthesis, then type a closing parenthesis. For example, if you want to total up all the numbers in column B in the spreadsheet using the =SUM() function, type B1:B21 and close the parenthesis.

Entering a function in EtherCalc

You can also add functions by double-clicking in a cell and typing them. There's no reference in the documentation for EtherCalc's functions. However, it does support OpenFormula (a standard for math formulas that spreadsheets support). If you're not familiar with spreadsheet functions, you can look up what you need in the OpenFormula specification or this handy dandy reference to LibreOffice Calc's functions.

Collaborating with others

Earlier this year, I worked with two friends on a content strategy project. I'm in New Zealand, one friend is in British Columbia, and the other is in Toronto. Since we were working across time zones, each of us needed access to the spreadsheet we were using to track and coordinate our work. Emailing a LibreOffice Calc file wasn't an option. Instead, we turned to EtherCalc, and it worked very well.

Collaborating with EtherCalc starts with sharing your spreadsheet's URL with your collaborators. You can tell when someone else is working on the spreadsheet by the blue border that appears around one or more cells.

Collaborating in EtherCalc

You and your collaborators can enter information into the spreadsheet simultaneously. All you need to remember is to respect the sanctity of those blue borders.

The Comment tab comes in handy when you need to ask a question, include additional information, or make a note to follow up on something. To add a comment, click the tab, and type what you need to type. When you're finished, click Save.

Adding a comment in EtherCalc

You can tell when a cell has a comment by the small red triangle in the top-right corner of the cell. Hold your mouse pointer over it to view the comment.

Viewing a comment in EtherCalc

Final thoughts

EtherCalc doesn't do everything that, say, LibreOffice Calc or Gnumeric can do. And there's nothing wrong with that. In this case, the 80/20 rule applies.

If you need a simple spreadsheet and one that you can work on with others, EtherCalc is a great choice. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you do, you'll have no problems using EtherCalc.

That idiot Scott Nesbitt ...
I'm a long-time user of free/open source software, and write various things for both fun and profit. I don't take myself all that seriously and I do all of my own stunts.

14 Comments

One important question is whether your data is secure with this method.

Well, it's up to you to decide what information you put into an EtherCalc. If you're using a public instance, then I'd advise against including information like bank or investment account numbers. I'd hope people would have enough sense to realize that.

In reply to by Greg Pittman

Good to know about this tool. As you said, for some cases could do the work. Thanks for share.

How does this compare against Google Sheets? Having used Excel (and before that Quattro Pro, Lotus 123, etc.) for a long time, we've come up with good use cases and finally gotten somewhat used to Google Sheets - but not 100%. Curious to see how EtherCalc compares.

I can't give you a feature-by-feature comparison -- it's been a while since I've used Sheets (I de-Googlized my life some time ago). And there are any number of spreadsheet features and functions that I don't use, have never used, and probably will never use.

What areas/functions of Sheets and EtherCalc do you want to compare?

In reply to by Jon Strong (not verified)

We're trying to figure out how to copy a file we are using as a template. Is that possible, or do we need to copy and paste cells?

In reply to by Scott Nesbitt

Looks interesting, and while I don't do "Finance"?...this could help with Inventory for tour I.T. Department which is spread out all over the U.S.! Thanks for sharing!!

I tried to comment here last week; ethercalc seems to be down for the last few days at least—is it coming back? I have some, but not all, of my ethercalc spreadsheets backed up.

Really? Which instance has been down? I've been popping in and out of my EtherCalcs on ethercalc.net and framacalc.org with no problems for the last few weeks.

Regardless, this isn't the place to report an outage. You need to contact the developer or whoever's running the instance of EtherCalc you're using.

In reply to by Sally G (not verified)

Sorry, newbie, nonprogrammer here! I have been using ethercalc.com from my browser, and suddenly none of my spreadsheets are available. I checked “isitdownrightnow.com”, and it says “ethercalc is down for everybody”. Basically, I was using some sort of public server, I guess, but have no idea who or where. (I just changed the extension from .com to .net in one of my links and got a 404 error.)

In reply to by Scott Nesbitt

Try ethercalc.org with your link. That might work. I don't know if there was ever an ethercalc.com. At least, I don't remember there being one in the few years I've been following the project.

In reply to by Sally G (not verified)

Is there a way to store multiple EtherCalc grains into one folder?

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