When first introduced to Excel (and other spreadsheet tools such as Googe Sheets and OpenOffice Calc), we don't really question the tool, we just get to work, learning as we go, yet still never too sure about what a spreadsheet really is: Is it a calculator? A data entry and manipulation tool? An analysis tool? A visualisation tool? Knowing this, I hope to help you settle much quicker than without it.
So we know that Excel is a spreadsheet tool. So really, this isn't so much a question of what Excel is but rather, a question of what a spreadsheet is, and how does this compare to Tableau.
So according to Collins, a spreadsheet is:
a computer program that allows easy entry and manipulation of figures, equations, and text, used esp for financial planning and budgeting - Collins English Dictionary (March 2019)
So spreadsheets are multi-purpose tools that allow for data entry, data manipulation, analytics and visualisation.
So going back to the original question What is Tableau, we can say that Tableau neither allows for data entry nor data manipulation (at least not directly), though through calculations, we can alter the output and meaning of the data, whilst allowing the original data to persist.
Tableau is a presentation layer. Or rather, a pivoting-tool, in that it presents the output of your data model, whether this be a direct read of your data, or where you have manipulated the meaning of the data through calculations
This is the key answer and the one that should always remain on your mind when you are working with either tool: Tableau is a presentation layer which means, it is the final step in any data-work whether this be:
- An analysis
- A data-driven dashboard
- An investigation
- An info-chart etc
Where you would use a spreadsheet to enter and manipulate data and then analyse data, Tableau simply visualises data and the output of your calculations. This means that any alterations to the data through calculation, editing and manipulation are either semi-permanent, or permanent and this able to be used by other tools, whereas the data that Tableau display's has only been read by Tableau, it's state has not altered.
This brings us neatly onto the next section: Where are my calculations processed?