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The 21st century executive

The Low-down on Off-the-Shelf Software: Advantages and Disadvantages

off the shelf software advantages

Buoyed by the massive shift to online work and the increased popularity of e-commerce and other tech innovations, many organizations are leaning hard into digital transformation efforts. It’s now one of the biggest factors affecting business success. For many businesses, implementing new software is a major aspect of the digital transformation journey. When it comes to choosing the right software solutions though, off-the-shelf software’s advantages are hard to overlook. 

Failing to get your software investments right can see transformation initiatives missing the mark or failing to meet the expected returns on investment. While custom software is a great option if you’ve got the budget, off-the-shelf software is another option you may want to consider. 

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What is off-the-shelf software? 

Off-the-shelf software refers to software solutions and services typically mass-produced by software companies for wide market use. They’re quick and easy to install, which makes them ready to use and figuratively and “off-the-shelf”. As these products are developed with mass-market appeal in mind, they typically offer a range of key functionalities and features to appeal to as many customers as possible. 

With the advent of cloud technologies, more and more traditional software companies have shifted their product offerings to SaaS platforms. Notable examples include the Adobe Creative Suite of products, Microsoft 365, and Google Workspace’s collection of services.  

What are off-the-shelf software’s advantages 

One of the reasons for off-the-shelf software’s popularity is the significant advantages it offers for businesses. Major benefits for organizations include:

1. Lower Initial Cost

The primary advantage of off-the-shelf software is its low cost of implementation. As they are already complete software products and services, they’re usually fully developed, tested, and maintained for security and reliability. Compared to bespoke software developed either in-house or by external software development agencies, the initial cost of licensing off-the-shelf software can be far lower 

What’s more, many offer free trial periods with so-called “freemium” options that allow users to try out certain features before committing to purchasing. This makes it a great choice for startups, small businesses, and companies pursuing digital transformation on a budget. 

2. Shorter Time to Value

The second biggest advantage of off-the-shelf software would be the decreased time to value that it offers. As these are already complete products, there’s no need to wait for development, testing, or deployment. After purchasing or licensing the software, it’s as simple as installing it as needed and using it. 

The shorter time to implementation translates to a much shorter time to value from the initial investment compared to customized software products

3. Ongoing support and updates

Most software service providers offer continued support for their products as part of the licensing fee. Modern SaaS providers now offer real-time customer support, and AI-powered chatbots to help resolve common issues and answer frequently asked questions. Having trouble with a feature? Finding the solution can be as easy as messaging or calling a customer representative for assistance. 

Furthermore, many service providers regularly update their product offerings to improve the quality of service. This means that new features, functionalities, and bug fixes are added to existing products at no extra cost. With that in mind, not every software company operates in the same way, so it’s very important to examine your Service Level Agreement (SLA) to know exactly what you’re entitled to.

4. Available training resources

Another advantage of off-the-shelf software is the availability of training, accessible documentation, and educational resources. Whereas bespoke software may be customized to suit an organization’s needs with a high degree of specificity, off-the-shelf products are aimed at a much larger audience. As a result, many software companies also provide detailed training and educational resources to help customers get the best results from their software. 

Resources like educational courses, video tutorials, user manuals, or in-person workshops and training are all options that software companies may offer. Teams with access to better training and educational resources are better able to leverage software solutions to improve their workflows and productivity. 

5. Existing customer bases and communities

An interesting side benefit of using mass-market software is the community of existing customers. While it may not be immediately apparent, these communities can be extremely useful both before and after a decision to purchase the software has been made. When it comes to software with large customer bases, the advantage comes from knowing that you’ll never be alone. 

These user-led communities provide an additional, informal layer of support by: 

  • providing honest reviews detailing their experiences as customers 
  • creating educational content in a more digestible format (video tutorials, blog posts, etc.,) 
  • providing solutions to commonly experienced problems (e.g., Reddit subs, LinkedIn groups, web forums, etc.,) 

Disadvantages of off-the-shelf software 

While off-the-shelf software’s advantages might make it seem like the obvious choice for businesses, they’re not perfect solutions. As with anything else, before making a decision the pros and cons ought to be considered equally. Some of the main disadvantages of off-the-shelf software include: 

1. More costly in the long term

While off-the-shelf software certainly offers a much lower initial cost than developing custom software from scratch, the long-term costs can add up. Most off-the-shelf software today is licensed by user, meaning that use of the software and related resources is tied to a fixed period of use. For software vendors, this means continuous revenue streams, but for businesses, it means repeating costs. Additionally, the more employees there are, the more licenses need to be purchased. This means, as businesses scale up, the cost of off-the-shelf software can also scale.  

One solution to offset this would be to purchase off-the-shelf software for the interim while investing in developing custom software solutions. This allows organizations to reap the benefits of software implementation, without being locked in. 

2. Lack of Customization Options

When it comes to software products, mass-market products tend to have a wide range of standardized options. This can be a double-edged sword of sorts where there are limited options for customization.  

Many software vendors may bundle several features into their products or offer packages containing different software combinations as a suite (for example, Adobe, Microsoft, and IBM). However, with these bundles, it’s often not possible to completely tailor your choices of software to your specific needs. While these different bundles may include the software or functionalities that you desire, they can also come with features that you don’t.  

3. Lack of control over changes

System updates and changes can be a good thing when you need them, but when they’re neither needed nor wanted they can become a hassle. As off-the-shelf software is under the full control of the software vendor, changes can come that you would rather not have. Worse, features that you rely on may even be removed. 

Typical changes from UI redesign to retiring functionalities are usually done with the best intentions, but they can also create unnecessary headaches. For example, productivity in your organization can dip while teams are either retraining or learning how to use new features.  

4. Failure to address your specific needs

Related to the lack of customization is the lack of specificity. Off-the-shelf software is made to be used by as wide a range of users as possible, as a result, niche use-cases are seldom catered to. For most businesses, this isn’t a huge problem, which is why off-the-shelf software is so popular. They provide enough of the functionalities and features so that businesses can improve ROI even if they aren’t perfectly suited for that specific niche. 

When coming up against the limitations of off-the-shelf software, it may be necessary to find other software integrations that offer expanded utility to meet your needs. Remember your software solutions should be complementary to your organization’s workflows. If you find yourself having to change your processes to suit the software, it’s a good indicator that it’s not the right fit for your organization. 

5. Upgrades and support can be paywalled

Most software vendors offer regular software updates and direct support of some kind or other. However, this is not always guaranteed. Some vendors lock important services or functionalities and support options behind paywalls. Upgrading your existing software package then means reevaluating your budget and balancing the cost to likely benefits. 

Vendors also gradually phase out support for older versions of their software, driving sales for new products. A key example of this would be Adobe. When changing to a SaaS model, Adobe gradually stopped offering support for its older one-time purchase software products, essentially funneling users towards their Cloud-based product suite. 

6. Integration and compatibility challenges

Integration describes the process of combining software sub-systems into a unified working system. It’s a major factor to consider when weighing your software options. Custom software doesn’t often suffer from integration challenges as they’re usually addressed in the development process. Off-the-shelf software, on the other hand, isn’t always optimized for integration with other software products.  

Poor integration makes data capture and transparency into workflows more challenging. What’s more, it may require the development of ad hoc features or workarounds to achieve the desired functionality. Ready-to-use software is often well integrated with products from the same vendor but may not play well with other software your teams use. 

Weigh the benefits of custom software against the advantages of off-the-shelf applications 

Remember, whether you choose off-the-shelf software solutions or customized software the software should make business operations more efficient. When looking for the right software option for your business you’ll need to assess your organization’s needs thoroughly and see what works best for you. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of both is a good place to start. Learn more about the pros and cons of bespoke software here. 

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About the author
Juan Pablo González

Working as Foreworth’s Chief Technical Officer, Juan Pablo (JP) manages the company’s technical strategy. With nearly 20 years of experience in software development, he ensures the development process at Foreworth is meeting its keys objectives and technical requirements.

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