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Custom Software vs Off-The-Shelf Software: Pros & Cons

Custom Software vs Off-The-Shelf Software | Frogslayer

The critical question facing any company trying to improve through technology is when to choose custom software vs. off-the-shelf software. The business case for building custom software is compelling but complex. In the best instances, custom software can solve intractable problems and give mid-market firms a distinct competitive advantage vs. off-the-shelf software. In the worst instances, custom software can fail to deliver on its promises, costing the firm money and precious time from key resources. 

Custom vs Off-The-Shelf Software: Differences, Advantages & Disadvantages 

Custom software, also known as bespoke software, is tailored to meet an organization’s or user’s specific needs through design and functionality. Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software, on the other hand, is built for a broad set of users so that its features can meet most needs of its ideal customer.  

Off-the-shelf software has the advantage of accessibility, affordability, and applicability. Because developers create these products for the broadest possible base of users, they provide the fundamental features most businesses need in user-friendly formats. But that is also their biggest weakness. Because off-the-shelf software tries to appeal to everyone, it isn’t perfectly suited to any specific user. It may be helpful in some instances, but off-the-shelf software will always fall short when it comes to providing meaningful business solutions.  

The advantages of custom software counteract the limitations of off-the-shelf alternatives. Custom software is built to align with a company’s business plan delivers maximum impact by removing points of friction, facilitating essential workflows, and working organically within an organization. Because it’s built from the ground up, custom software works precisely as users need it to, offering them a toolkit that includes everything necessary without anything extraneous. Nothing in the consumer software market can offer lasting business solutions as quickly or comprehensively as bespoke solutions.  

But that doesn’t mean every piece of custom software is perfect. As mentioned, some custom software solutions offer little in terms of real value despite the premium companies pay for custom software development. That makes the software a waste of resources and a lost opportunity to leverage technology.  

Fortunately, there is a reliable way to balance the risks and rewards of custom software: evaluate custom software vs. commercial off-the-shelf software on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes off-the-shelf will work, and other times custom is the better (or only) option. 

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5 Custom Software Development Benefits 

You need a bespoke software solution for your business when you’re looking for one of the following benefits of custom software development: 

1. Ability to Pioneer a New Approach

Today, every company aims to be an innovator. But there are few — if any — existing software solutions to support those ambitions. When companies need business solutions that are unique to their strategies or situations, custom software is the only source. However, that doesn’t necessarily require building something from the ground up. In some cases, the custom software with the most significant impact doesn’t offer something completely original. Instead, it streamlines the features of a complex off-the-shelf software product to make those features more accessible and quicker to leverage or combines off-the-shelf products with custom software in a novel way to create a more comprehensive product. 

2. Capacity to Operate Across the Digital Realm

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the digital transformation already underway at many companies. When businesses suddenly needed to work remotely in new ways, they discovered the gaps in operations where things still needed to be digitized. Unfortunately, closing these gaps so that a company can operate seamlessly isn’t always easy to do with off-the-shelf software options. By design, off-the-shelf software options can’t meet the exact shape and size of the missing pieces in a company’s digital transformation efforts. But custom software can. Partnering with developers who can expedite a working software solution lets companies extend digital access as widely and quickly as possible.

3. Separation from the Competition

In the past, the key differentiators between market leaders and everyone else came down to talent, history, and access to capital. Now, however, technology is the key differentiator. Companies that leverage it to improve efficiency, productivity, agility, and innovation give themselves advantages that their competition can’t match. That is especially true when companies use custom software to distinguish themselves from those dependent on off-the-shelf software. Even a relatively small or simple piece of customized software can help a company overcome an obstacle or seize an opportunity that translates into meaningful market share. Most importantly, custom software is a singular asset that the competition doesn’t have (and can’t have). For that fact alone, it helps companies gain ground and hold the lead better than most other key differentiators. 

4. Newly-Ignited Product Strategy

Whether a business seeks to lower costs, optimize operations, improve experiences or enter new markets, customized products provide an operational and informational advantage that traditional activities cannot match. Great product strategies stem from organizational objectives, and since technology can separate a company from their competition, it can act as an accelerant for the business. For example, if a company is looking to differentiate on world-class customer experiences, it can take a common tack of adding call centers or training representatives. Ultimately, however, proprietary technology derived from a company’s workflows that builds a customer profile and helps them exceed their customers’ expectations will be a much more scalable investment that is harder for competition to emulate. Airlines, online marketplaces, and hospitality know this, which is why many continue developing their customer interfaces to stay ahead. 

5. More Secure Future

The line between tech companies and traditional enterprises is disappearing, and the events of the last several years have only compressed the inevitable timeline. Digital is no longer an option but an essential part of competing in today’s economy. An incumbent business needs to continue deepening and widening its competitive moats, i.e., that which others cannot easily replicate. This commonly takes the form of scale, brand, industry knowledge, and technology. Companies know their competition, particularly new entrants, will come with a digital-first approach; custom software can assist a business in improving each of these facets of competitive advantage so that they may counter the inevitable before it happens. 

Custom Software Solutions: A Meaningful Decision for Your Business 

The debate over custom software vs. off-the-shelf software isn’t a debate at all. Instead, frame it as a search for business solutions. There are times when off-the-shelf software proves more than adequate — why develop your own word processor, for instance? And there are other times when the benefits of custom software are too enticing to ignore. Focusing on maximizing those benefits instead of stuffing custom software full of bells and whistles can vault your company to places it wouldn’t have reached otherwise. 

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