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Published at Mon Mar 13 2023 in
Rows HQ

2023 W10: Ownership in the age of SaaS

Blog - Plug

Every week I post about one thing that happened at Rows. We're building in public!


Last week we received an email from a user who flopped (did not convert).

His point is that SaaS tools don't provide the ownership he expects. And because Rows is a SaaS cloud software, he won't be staying with us. He wants to own the files, always, at every moment and forever.

He has a great point. It is true that SaaS very frequently abstracts functionality in the cloud at the cost of ownership.

But that's not necessarily the case. Cloud software can be 100% ownership-friendly, and the local-first movement is pushing the web there. It is not easy, but doable. Apart from that, software builders have to balance ownership against the convenience of the cloud and quick value for users, among other considerations.

Rows is on a multi-year journey, and I think ownership is a big topic for us. We already use a standard and so our spreadsheets are very compatible - tables, cells, formulas! We have critical components that are unique, but those are exportable as tables too. Our freemium plan lets you access your spreadsheets forever. And I am sure we will do better in the future.

This is what happened!

The user's inbound email

The user sent the following email, that I redacted for brevity and anonymity.


I tried ROWS a while ago but I quickly realized it’s not what I need and forgot about it.

But today, while sweeping around in my email box, I stumbled upon one of your emails and decided to share my opinion. I really like what you’re doing, but as it’s the case with all other similar software, there is one simple but critical issue which keeps me away from using it, and any similar “cloud based” software.

I am a power user of Excel, I know Access, Power BI and similar stuff. I am not a programmer but I played around with SQL, Python, Java, and I understand how data bases work.

For my work I rely heavily on data management, and I always need to build my custom data management tools. Apart from Excel, I tried Ragic, Ninox, Amazon Honeycode, Zoho, Airtable, and some others.

But in the end I left, because one simple reason which is the cause I will never use such software again (including yours):

I put a huge amount of time and effort into building an app for my professional needs, but I realize that I don’t really own the result of my work and I cannot take it with me (as I can with Excel).

My app is not in my PC, but in your “cloud”.  And once I stop paying you, all of my work is lost, and if I need to access it I must start paying you again. And if your company flops tomorrow, my app and all of my data flops with it.

This is the reason for which I will never use “cloud software” or “software as a service” to build serious apps to keep and manage my data in the long term. From my perspective, this type of “software” is just a playground, but it’s not for professionals. I would rather pay a couple of hundred bucks for the software I can really own, install it on my PC, and use it to build my very own business application which I can own and use forever, and would pay periodically for updated versions of the software if I decide to upgrade.

Good luck! - V

This is a valid concern by users, and we've seen it show up in discussions too.

This point isn't just being raised by outsiders, but internally as well: we dream that the Rows spreadsheet becomes a standard everyone can trust.

Rows: the state of SaaSness and ownership

The following is my answer, with small edits for brevity.


You are absolutely right that Cloud SaaS introduces a question of dependence to the host service. I wouldn't want my docs - spreadsheets, PDFs or others - to be locked away inside a software I don't control.

But business is also an exercise of value and practicality. The cloud is unavoidable in some form: the most interesting data is in the cloud and is frequently updated, and to access it you benefit immensely from central access management; Collaboration is important, and publishing documents for others to consume at their convenience is super relevant too, and both require some form of trusting some cloud; Finally there is the question of automation, so that your documents are kept up to date even while you're not there.

To that end, I'd like to split the problem and pick your brain (and you now, reading this!): 

1. The spreadsheet format. Rows operates with standard elements. Tables with cells, Charts. Our formulas are 100% compatible with Excel formulas, even if we have built many more that they don't support. We are even trying to standardize scripting, as we ditched the proprietary "VBA" and "AppsScript" in favor of a formula based solution; our functions can write side-effects, schedule executions, and even create buttons. Your knowledge is safe and extensible in Rows. This way, we're very much unlike other products you mention that use a custom language to solve a custom problem. 

2. Importing and Exporting. Because we use a standard format, Rows can handle csv/xlsx for importing and exporting. Your cells and values and formulas are intact. Even copy-paste is compatible. We also provide an API and links to automation services (Zapier, Make) where you can access and download, even continuously, your data from Rows. No lock-in! In the future, we might support exporting to an open file format that'd be more complete and reflect the entirety of the shenanigans users do in their spreadsheet. Think of ".spread". We are interested in the concept of using files and code to express anything (markdown, infra as code, you name it), and that supports the assumption that even the most cloud-centric spaghetti can be expressed in a form that provides ownership to it's creator.

3. Local applications. At this moment, we are committed to the web, as it is the easiest way we can give all our users those benefits mentioned above - spreadsheet + data + collaboration + publishing. We don't have plans to build a desktop application soon. But we have a direct interest in moving things locally: it's cheaper to calculate on your computer (the user), and for small operations it's faster too (0 latency). There are quite some challenges to this at our spreadsheet size (>1Gb) but its possible. Be assured that this is our path.

4. Business. Wether you pay for Rows or use us in the free plan, you can always access your spreadsheets. We will always support a free plan, and that plan will always let you consume your spreadsheets and take them out. It'd be quite evil to lock you out of your work, and all the spreadsheet software I've tried let's you do it. With paid features, yes, you do get locked out of creating new stuff with them, but those are also very much cloud centric features. If you export your files, no paid features ever affect those.

5. Future proofness. Our view is that using the spreadsheet format and letting you exporting your data allows you to keep your documents. The API and automations let you do it automatically. The one extra thing we considered was to open-source a significant part of our software, so that others might continue advancing what we do and cement our work as a community-owned effort. At this moment we have not yet received enough interest to embark on it.

I'd love your input.


And that was it.

The software world has clearly moved en masse to SaaS (subscription) models, but we think the future will be far more mixed (cloud+total ownership) than today.

It is amazing to pursue such an ambitious software and get such passionate feedback. Always send it to Humberto@.

Till next week

- H