Bespoke Software vs. Off-The-Shelf


We love bespoke software. Software designed for a specific purpose is simple to use and feels great. We’re obviously biased towards bespoke software, but sometimes it’s not the right business decision. When should you consider a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solution?

COTS software trades fit for price. It won’t match your processes as well as bespoke software but it may be cheaper. The more general your problem is, the more likely you are to find an acceptable COTS solution.

We’ve compared COTS and bespoke software in a few key areas:

Delivery Speed
COTS solutions are faster; they can often be bought in minutes with no design work required. Bespoke software timelines run from weeks to months.

Feature Completeness
COTS solutions are feature rich but may not cover your requirements. Bespoke software targets the features required to solve your problem leaving simple effective software. Consider using Excel to track holidays – the deep feature set of a spreadsheet certainly makes it possible, but transforming generic cells into a calendar takes a lot of effort. This is a generally applicable rule: the wider the audience for a piece of software, the less specific it can be.

Customisation and Control
COTS software often offers no customisation. Before choosing an off-the-shelf solution, ensure that it meets your needs (now and in the future); investment made in fitting the software into your process may be lost if the software doesn’t cover everything you need. Bespoke software can be improved in future, potentially by any development team (see the tips below!).

Ease of Use
Bespoke software benefits from standardisation. A user familiar with one Microsoft Office product will be familiar with all Office products. However, well-written bespoke software will always be easier to use! Software can be mapped directly to your processes making it very simple to understand. No training courses, no time spent figuring out how to translate software terms to business terms, no time wasted working around the places where the software doesn’t match your process.

Bespoke software starts out more expensive. It requires an initial cash outlay to develop, which is often many times the initial cost of COTS software.

Although COTS software appears cheap, in the long run it may be more expensive. Yearly license fees (per user!) and training costs can be significant. Even more so is the time and opportunity cost to working with software which does not fit your processes well. Considered over period of years, the human cost may be the largest factor.

Bespoke Software Tips

If you choose to go with bespoke software, there are some easy tips to get the best result;

  • Get the source code! Developers who refuse to release the source code are forcing you to work with only them in future
  • Hire the right team. Simple projects may be completed by a single developer, but large or complex projects require more organisation and skill. Larger software systems aren’t just more effort, they’re also more difficult to build well.
  • Find developers that use best practices and modern technologies. If you want to change software provider in future, it’s critical that the code they write is well-maintained and that other developers can understand it. Obscure technologies or languages are as bad for vendor lock-in as not having the source code.