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Off-the-shelf vs. bespoke software development


For a business looking for a software package, there are two main options available. They can buy an off-the-shelf software package, or have a bespoke software application developed. Here we look at the pros and cons of each.

What is off-the-shelf software?

Off-the-shelf software is ready-made software that is ready to go out of the box. It is available to everybody and includes many features, some or all of which will appeal to the masses. You usually pay a licence fee to use it, and it takes a one-fits-all approach. 

Examples of off-the-shelf software

There are many off-shelf software packages available. Some support specific business areas like customer relationship management (CRM) software, such as Salesforce and Zoho, which manage customer data for the sales and marketing teams to use. Or enterprise resource platforms (ERPs), such as Xero and Sage, which manage financial data and provide processes to help the finance teams.

But many off-the-shelf software systems support many departments providing a complete end-to-end system to manage business processes – such as Odoo, SAP and Microsoft Dynamics. Other off-the-shelf examples include photoshop for design, Microsoft Office and web browsers such as internet explorer, web apps and games.

Advantages of off-the-shelf software

  • Cheaper. The development costs are spread across a large number of users, so you pay much less than it would cost to build the same software from scratch.
  • Immediate availability. The development work has already been done, so all you need to do is set up the software and start using it.
  • Lower training costs. If it is a commonly used package, users and I.T. staff may already be familiar with it, saving on learning time and training costs. Or, there may be pre-existing training materials and courses that you can leverage.
  • Community support. If the software is popular, there may be books, articles, forums and online communities offering support and advice to help you learn or resolve any issues.
  • More functionality. Off-the-shelf software often has more functionality, because the developers try to meet the requirements of as many users as possible.
  • Upgrades. The vendor will continue to develop the software, so you will likely get upgrades for free or at a reduced cost, whereas in bespoke software you don’t get anything new unless you pay for it to be built.

Disadvantages of off-the-shelf software

  • Compromise. You may have to compromise on your requirements – it is unlikely you will find ready-made software that does everything you need it to, exactly how you want it to.
  • Overly complicated. The software may include functionality that you don’t need, as it is trying to meet the different requirements of a number of users. This can make it more difficult to learn and use.
  • You are not in control. The vendor’s plans for the future may not always fit with your own. As a single customer among many, you may not be able to get the features you want.

What is bespoke software?

Bespoke software is software that is written especially for you and designed to meet your specific business requirements. Unlike off-the-shelf software packages, custom or bespoke software supports how you and your business work – aiming to improve efficiencies by automating your existing processes – rather than your business having to change to meet the requirements of the software system.

Advantages of bespoke software

  • Tailored to you. Bespoke software is developed and built to meet your specific requirements, ensuring that you get software that works exactly how you need it to and delivers the results you want. You can develop a new website alongside or integrate it with your current site.
  • More flexible. A bespoke software system can evolve over time to match your changing requirements.
  • No per-user fees. If you own the software, you won’t have to extra per-user fees as your business grows.
  • Not tied in. You own the intellectual property, so you are not tied to a specific vendor that could potentially disappear at any time.
  • Competitive advantage. As your competitors won’t have the same software, it could give you a competitive edge. An effective software package can make a company work more efficiently, improve their performance and have a positive impact on customer satisfaction levels.

Disadvantages of bespoke software

  • Higher initial costs. It will cost more at the beginning, as you have to pay the development costs.
  • Takes longer. Depending on the size and complexity of the software, it may take months or even years to develop.

The hybrid solution

A third possibility is to find an off-the-shelf package that fits 80% of your requirements, then have it customised by a software development company to fit the other 20%. This may be by the original developers, or by a third party, as long as it is customisable or open source.

This solution gives you the best of both worlds – cheaper and quicker to set-up than fully bespoke software, but a closer match to your requirements than plain off-the-shelf software.

What to look for in a bespoke software development company

If you decide that you need a bespoke software solution, you need to find a software development company to build it for you. But how do you find the right one?

  • Do they have the expertise you need? Your software solution could be completely bespoke or a hybrid solution, so make sure the company you choose has the expertise to do both. And your software needs to be accessible and easy to use. Find a company experienced in software development, system integration, APIs and database development, but that also includes tools and methods in their process that considers the users and how they will work with and use the system. Finding this breadth of expertise will cover any aspects you may require to create the customised software system you need. 


  • What have they done for others? Check their case studies and testimonials – what do customers say about them? Have they done similar projects for others? Are they in the same sector or have similar goals? If the company has created similar systems before, it demonstrates that they have the skills and experience to do the same for you and will have learned a lot by doing those projects. You will benefit from these insights as they apply these learnings to your project.


  • What is their software development process? To build a bespoke solution, the company needs to understand your business and goals so they can design a system to meet your specific requirements. How collaborative are they? What are their communication methods? What is their software development process, and how in-depth is the discovery stage? How thorough this is could indicate how capable they are of finding the right solution for your company. 

For more information, check out our article on how to find the right software company for your business.

We can help

At Alberon we specialise in bespoke software development – we develop software that is tailored to your business, or customise your existing systems to work better. We also offer consultancy services, using our expertise to help clients choose the right off-the-shelf software for them.

Get in touch to discuss how we could help your business.

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