Off-the-shelf software is created for use by many different businesses, so the cost of development is essentially shared among all of them (leaving plenty of room for the developer to profit). So, the chief advantage of going with packaged software is that it usually cost less to purchase. Plus, packaged software is designed to appeal to a wide variety of user and organization types. That means the packages tend to be feature-rich, and you may even discover useful features you never would’ve thought of. Finally, if the vendor is a major player in the tech industry, support services will usually be inexpensive and easy to find.
So what are the advantages of custom software?
Specificity and a Competitive Edge
The first benefit of going custom is the obvious one: you get applications designed specifically to meet your business needs. Even with all the features that come with packaged software, businesses often end up adapting their practices to how the applications work instead of vice versa. In a marketplace where subtle differences in business practices have a major impact on productivity, custom software helps you stay competitive—especially since your competitors have access to the same packaged software you do. If you customize your own software, any advantage you get from it will be yours alone.
Freedom and Control
With custom software, you’re in charge of your own alterations and updates, whereas with packaged software you’re at the mercy of the provider’s development cycle. Similarly, whether you’re working with your own IT people or a third-party tech firm, you’ll have much more personalized support, from people who are familiar with your business model and appreciate what’s at stake.
You may also have more options when it comes to the hardware environment where you host your application. Off-the-shelf programs often have highly specific hosting and licensing requirements that you can avoid with a solution customized to both your business practices and your existing server environment. Plus, all those cool features of the packaged software demand a lot of bandwidth; if you pay to host the software but don’t use the features, you’re paying for processing power you don’t need.
Security and Integration
If the security of a piece of packaged software is compromised, everyone using that software is at risk. This gives an incentive to the less scrupulous techies out there to get into any commonly used software, because once you crack it for one company you’ve cracked it for them all. With custom software, though, you only need to worry about specifically targeted attacks. You can also build in whatever extra security measures you think your application needs. Finally, packaged software is seldom designed to play nice with other software. With a custom application, you can ensure seamless integration with your other programs, providing your workers with a much more intuitive experience and helping them to work much more efficiently.
All the advantages described above assume that the custom software you have developed works successfully. The problem is that a high percentage of custom development projects fail, which underscores the importance of making sure you have adequate resources if you do the project internally, or of choosing the right partner if you hire an outside firm.
The mistake businesses commonly make in choosing an IT partner is to shop around for someone who will quote a solid figure at the outset of the project so they can use that figure to negotiate with other firms. The reason this doesn’t work is that it’s very difficult to give a good estimate prior to an in-depth requirements-gathering or discovery process. (If the partner is using the Scrum methodology, requirements-gathering continues throughout the project.) And the firm giving the cheapest quote will seldom be the one that’s most likely to make the project a success. The key to choosing the right partner is to focus on the process each of them uses to customize their solutions—including, of course, how final cost is determined—rather than focusing simply on initial estimates.