Did you hear that a bunch of seventh graders recently discovered a cave on Mars?

They were participating in the Mars Student Imaging Program at the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University. These kids are 12 years old.

Recently, I took my kids to see Shrek 4.

Like Einstein once said, most human beings only use about 10 percent of their brains. That's me.

And that's true for my business too. Particularly in the case of Microsoft Office. Like many of my clients, we feel like we're only using 10 percent of the functionality of this product. So now that the new version of Office is out, I've been thinking some deep thoughts. Are there really caves on Mars? Will Eddie Murphy ever make a funny movie again? And, just as important, is it worth upgrading to Office 2010? Or, given the options available today, should we just replace it altogether?

Think, brain, think!

Even though Microsoft lowered the price of Office 2010, it still costs. Granted, I'm a Microsoft partner (although we don't sell the Office products). But for the full version of the product, which includes Access and Publisher, the price for small-business owners like me is $349 per license. Unfortunately, there's no upgrade pricing, so we get no benefit from already owning the software. I haven't discovered any caves on Mars recently, but I did figure out that the cost of upgrading my 10-person company would be about $3,500. This compares to $50 per year per user for Google Apps or Zoho Business, two leading hosted office products for small companies like mine. Even if I don't want to go for a hosted solution, I can download the open-source Open Office, powered by Oracle, and run it for free.

Yes, I admit that I wasted $60 on Shrek 4. And I admit that I struggle to use even 10 percent of the brainpower God gave me. But does this mean that I should shell out $3,500 for an office application when I can get a competing product for a lot less? What would those Mars kids do?

For starters, my company is an advanced user of Microsoft Office. Sure, you can argue, but many of my people swear by Outlook and consider it to be the best e-mail application around. People like to stick with things that work. We upgrade the applications that we find useful, particularly if we can enjoy new features and faster performance. Outlook 2010 has these. You can read the detailed reviews elsewhere.

In addition to Outlook, we have many databases built in Microsoft Access, including the accounting system we use. Many of my clients have built complex macros in Word for mail-merging. Others have pivot-table-based spreadsheets in Excel for internal analysis. A few business owners I know are heavy users of Microsoft Project and SharePoint. I'm not saying that changing office applications would be an impossible task. But it would be a headache for many of us, and could even possibly push us back a few steps if a new application doesn't come with the same advanced features that we need to run our businesses.

STARTING UP, OR OVER

Things would be different if my company was just a start-up. If the slate were clean and we hadn't chosen an Office tool, then avoiding the $349 per-user price and going with a hosted application like the ones above or Peepel, Feng Office or ThinkFree, would make a lot of sense. These applications are either free or cost next to nothing, and provide most of the basic functionality that a small company like mine needs. And many start-up companies today are launched from the owner's home or involve users in different geographic locations. These people are used to using remote connection tools. So a Web-based office suite that's quickly accessible by everyone who wants to collaborate also makes a lot of sense.

Sure, Microsoft has its Live service, but it's still not as simple as the newer Web-based applications already available.

Another thing about collaboration and remote workers: It's tougher to do with Microsoft Office.

Google and Zoho offer online group calendaring right from the start. ThinkFree gives their users fast document management using any phone, even if it's (gasp!) not a Windows Mobile device. Plaxo keeps contacts in the cloud for everyone in the company to access. Although not required, Microsoft really, really wants you to deploy your group calendaring and e-mail through Exchange (another cost). You need third-party products to synchronize documents to mobile devices like the Android or iPhone.

Today's online office suites were built with the mobile and remote user in mind. Microsoft Office wasn't.

It's still playing catch up.

REASONS TO STAY

Even with all these great advantages, many of the new applications are missing a couple of things that established small-businesses owners like me desperately seek (besides peace and quiet).

Like support. There are thousands of Microsoft Certified Professionals worldwide. True, most of them look like Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover, but they do know their computers. They support Microsoft Office. They troubleshoot problems, by phone, online or (if you're brave enough) at your offices. They create customized applications and integrate these products with others. They have at their disposal thousands of templates created by other creepy Microsoft developers over the years.

Many of the newer applications that compete with Microsoft Office don't have the support resources available. And when you've got a problem with a critical office application, you want support.

And integration too.

Office has been around for a zillion years. Established software developers are used to working with it. Because it doesn't sit somewhere in the cloud, it has been integrated with many of the applications that small companies use, like ACT, GoldMine, QuickBooks, Peachtree and hundreds of other vertical accounting and management systems. Adobe's Buzzword may be a cool (and free) online word processor, but it doesn't integrate as well (or in most cases at all) with these popular business applications. And neither do Peepel, or Feng Office or ThinkFree.

That's not to say that many of these apps, particularly the open-source ones, can't be modified to integrate with most small-business programs. But it's not generally out of the box and would require hiring one of those programming guys. I hate those guys.

So for my company, I'm going to stick with Microsoft Office.

For now.

Why? Because I'm lazy and I only use 10 percent of my brain. But it's also because I don't want to distract my employees and turn my company upside down with a whole new system. Look, I'm not going to be discovering any caves on Mars. And I may have a tough time explaining this decision to a 25-year-old starting up his own company.

I'll just keep sticking with what I know.

Hey - anyone see Toy Story 3?

Gene Mark, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.

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