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Which should you choose, off-the-shelf or a bespoke application?

Tim Collingwood - 30 April 2019

Organisations are now faced with a multitude of choices when it comes to implementing new applications, whether part of a digital transformation process, or simply replacing existing legacy systems. One of the biggest choices that organisations have to make is whether to implement off-the-shelf software or develop a bespoke application.

Before diving into the advantages of each, let’s take a look at what we mean by off-the-shelf software and bespoke applications.

What is off-the-shelf software?

Off-the-shelf software is something that has been built for a mass market and therefore will try and satisfy as many organisations needs as possible. Off-the-shelf software can either be downloaded and run locally on a user’s machine or on premise, or provided via a web browser as a cloud service.

Most people will have used several off-the-shelf pieces of software. A simple example of off-the-shelf software is Microsoft Word.

As off-the-shelf software is now often provided as a cloud service and for the purposes of this blog post we will assume that this is the case.

What is a bespoke application?

A bespoke application is an application that has been designed and developed specifically for a single organisation or users requirements.

You may not have ever used a bespoke application, although there is a reasonable chance that one does exist within your organisation and could be something as simple as an online visitor’s sign-in register created by somebody in your IT department.

An online application means that users interact with the application via a web browser. The application itself is hosted centrally often within a datacentre and for the purposes of this blog post we will assume that this is the case.

Should you use off-the-shelf software or a bespoke application for your next IT project?

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to the two options you face when considering your new application. We’ve outlined some of the key things we think you should consider when deciding what the most suitable approach is for you.

Off-the-shelf Software

Off-the-shelf software is now being increasingly provided as a cloud service rather than an application you download and run locally.

Often the first step will be to have a look online to see if there is any existing software which will suit your exact requirements. Perhaps there may be some software out there that will ‘do the job’ but it may not be a perfect fit in how it works compared to your exact requirements.

Advantages of off-the-shelf software for your IT project

  1. The time to get started using the software can often be very quick as the application is effectively ready and waiting.
  2. Low cost entry point, compared to developing your own system.
  3. Can often be supported across a multitude of platforms.
  4. Regular updates to software to keep it up-to-date.

Disadvantages of off-the-shelf software for your IT project

  1. Where the data is stored may be an issue for you. With many of the off-the-shelf cloud offerings it’s not always possible to tell or dictate where your data is held.
  2. Your data may not be backed up or if it is, the backup of data may not be accessible.
  3. For a variety of reasons, the software may not be available forever (What would happen to your data if the service were to cease?).
  4. Whilst being regularly updated, key functionality can change or be removed.
  5. Pricing to use the software can change making it difficult to budget.
  6. It can take a lot of time to find an application that suits your requirements, or software that meets your exact needs might not even exist.
  7. Costs aren’t always as reasonable as they initially appear depending on the pricing model of the software e.g. the cost could quickly increase if everyone in your organisation needs to use the software.

Bespoke Applications

Having a custom application developed can help maximise and increase the chances of the applications implementation and uptake being a success.
A bespoke application will be designed and developed in accordance with your requirements and help your organisation maximise its return on investment.

Advantages of a bespoke application for your IT project

  1. Can be developed to work in exactly the way you want.
  2. It can be expanded further in future to include additional features you require.
  3. You can easily add more users without incurring additional licensing costs.
  4. You choose where to host it to ensure that it complies with your organisation’s data protection policy and General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).
  5. You don’t have to be reliant on a sole supplier for the development and support of the application.
  6. You own the application (no more licensing), even make money by selling it to others.
  7. You can integrate the application with other applications / datasets that you are already using within your organisation.
  8. You have complete control of the application experience e.g. branding etc. which can be useful if it’s also used by your clients.

Disadvantages of a bespoke application for your IT project

  1. There is potentially a higher cost entry point.
  2. There is usually a longer time-to-use due to the need to go through the development, testing and user acceptance process.
  3. You will have to provide/source infrastructure e.g. hosting, backups yourself.
  4. You will need to pay for the application to be maintained to ensure that bugs are fixed and it is kept secure and up-to-date.
  5. Wide range of user support isn’t available.

Which should you choose, off-the-shelf or a bespoke application?

As you can see there are a number of advantages and disadvantages to both options, and it really isn’t a case of one being better than the other. What it really depends on is a number of factors including; the requirements for the project, what’s suitable for your organisation, what applications are already available, and your budget. The overall solution could also be a combination of the two by integrating a bespoke web application with an off-the-shelf application to meet your overall requirements.

OWA have 24 years of experience in developing, hosting and supporting bespoke applications and we would be happy to help with your next project. You can get in touch with our friendly team and we can help you find the right solution to successfully implementing your next application.