Custom Software Vs Off the Shelf software

Chris Maffey -

A quick look at the benefits of custom software and off the shelf software. 

Off the shelf software is best

Wait what?  Our entire business is building custom software, why write an article recommending off the shelf software.

Sometimes, the quest for the “perfect” software solution leads to the desire to custom-build it from the ground up. While bespoke software has its place (its our whole business!), there are numerous situations where off-the-shelf options not only suffice but excel. Delving deeper, let's explore why it’s sometimes better to leverage existing software solutions than to custom-create them.

  1. Cost-Effective: Custom software development can be prohibitively expensive. There's the cost of developer time, the extended development timeline, and the unpredictability of unforeseen glitches or challenges. Off-the-shelf software, by contrast, spreads its development and maintenance costs across many users, making it a cost-effective alternative for businesses.
  2. Low Risk: Off the shelf software will work, although it may not be 100% perfect for your business, it will work.  Building a custom software solution is a risky adventure.  A good software development company will mitigate the risk by using an agile development strategy, however, there is still a change the software development might not produce the outcome the customer was looking for.
  3. Immediate Implementation: One of the most attractive features of ready-made software is the immediacy of its deployment. Once purchased or licensed, businesses can start using the software almost instantly. Custom software, on the other hand, can take months or even years to fully develop and test.
  4. Reliability and Support: Popular off-the-shelf software solutions come with the backing of established companies, which means they are tried and tested by countless users. Any kinks or glitches have likely been identified and ironed out. Moreover, they usually come with customer support, regular updates, and a vast community that can assist with troubleshooting.
  5. Comprehensive Features: Off-the-shelf software often includes a myriad of features developed based on feedback from a large user base. Even if you don’t utilize every feature, the versatility ensures the software can adapt to changing business needs. Custom software, conversely, will require additional development for any new functionality.

Consider these categories of software where pre-built options often shine.  It is unlikely to be worth writing software to compete with any of the following:

  • Office Suites: Microsoft Office and Google Workspace are quintessential examples of comprehensive toolsets that cater to myriad needs, making custom alternatives less appealing.
  • Accounting Software: Systems like QuickBooks or Xero have been specifically tailored to meet the complexities of financial tasks, often making the development of a custom alternative redundant.
  • Project Management Tools: Software like Trello, Asana, or Microsoft Project provides structured platforms for teams to coordinate, plan, and execute tasks efficiently. Their pre-existing, robust features often negate the need for custom solutions.
  • Graphic Design: Applications like Adobe Creative Cloud or CorelDRAW provide an extensive suite of tools for professionals and amateurs alike, making them a preferred choice over building a custom graphic tool.

If you have generic requirements, something that other organisations have needed and software companies have already written, then your best course is using the existing solution.  Avoid reinventing the wheel so to speak. 

When to build custom.

  1. Unique Business Needs: One of the primary reasons a company might choose to invest in custom-built software is when they have a unique business process or need that cannot be met by existing commercial software. For instance, if a company has a proprietary process that gives them a competitive edge, they might require software tailored specifically to support and enhance that process. Off-the-shelf solutions, designed for a broader audience, might not be malleable enough to accommodate these niche requirements.
  2. Scalability Concerns: As businesses grow, scalability becomes a crucial factor. Custom-built software can be designed with scalability in mind, ensuring that as the company expands, the software can handle the increased workload or adapt to changing business models without significant overhauls or migrations.  Scaling an off the shelf application can get expensive depending on the structure of license fees.
  3. Integration with Existing Systems: Off-the-shelf solutions might not always integrate seamlessly with a company's existing software stack. If a company relies heavily on legacy systems or has a heterogeneous software environment, custom software can be built to ensure perfect integration, reducing inefficiencies and potential bottlenecks.
  4. Cost Over Time: While custom software often requires a more significant initial investment, the cost over time can sometimes be lower than off-the-shelf solutions. Commercial software typically comes with recurring licensing fees, and any modifications or integrations can lead to additional costs. Custom software, once built, usually only incurs maintenance costs.  On going license costs can get very expensive, it is necessary to factor these costs into a purchasing decision.
  5. Competitive Advantage: Custom-built software can be a source of competitive advantage. When a company has software that is tailored to its needs and is different from what competitors are using, it can lead to operational efficiencies and innovative offerings that set the company apart.
  6. Security and Compliance: In industries where strict compliance and security standards are the norm, custom software allows companies to embed these requirements from the ground up. Off-the-shelf solutions might require extensive modifications to meet industry-specific regulations.


Hybrid Approach using APIs

Today it is rear for a software system to be entirely stand alone.  Most will have some form of API to allow other applications to communicate with it. 

APIs allow for a hybrid approach to the custom built vs off the shelf question.  Your software developer is able to build custom software for your key or niche functions, and plug into off the self software for more well defined functions.  Our most common example of this is connecting to accounting systems.  We have build many custom customer relationship management (CRM) systems, which will share invoicing and customer details with an off the shelf accounting system.  This gives the customer the flexibility of custom build with the certainty of off the shelf software.



More Articles