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Buying Web Software: Off-The-Shelf or Off-The-Hook?

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Out-of-the-box. All-in-one. Off-the-shelf. Whichever phrase you’re familiar with (likely all three), you probably have been or are currently weighing an option in software that carries this description - or at least a promise of it. Why? Because in this desolate world of ours where it will soon be no longer possible to chat with grandma on AOL Instant Messenger, and where the most amicable social media discussions with friends are less polite than murder, we need hope. Because what if? What if there just may be an amazing solution out there that is cheaper, faster and does everything I want?! Well, let’s think about it.

Soft software

Software is a funny term because it traditionally always represented something that was effectively the opposite of hardware. Instead of machines and screws and motherboards, it was the 1s and 0s that ran on the hardware. Despite that however, it held a lot of similarities in dynamic in that it was typically tightly paired with the hardware and if one was stable and static, the other could be stable and static. You buy a PC but then you buy Windows 95 to run on it. And the two of them could happily enjoy their relationship until something wore out or something better was needed. Web software is different though. It’s the softest of all software because it doesn’t live on a disk or CD or hard drive anymore and it doesn’t run on any particular hardware. How is this relevant? I have no ide... It’s relevant because it’s helpful to think about what you’re actually buying when you buy custom or off-the-shelf web software, because it’s simply not the same thing as desktop software. Here’s how.

If you want to buy Microsoft Word, you have a few options. You can walk into a Fry’s Electronics and buy a CD or DVD. Or you can order online and download it. In either case you install it and - with the aid of occasional optional security or maintenance updates - you’re set! Web software just doesn’t work this way. Whether it’s completely custom or an all-in-one software as a service product, the web is so fluid and evolving that what you’re buying is something that lives in a chaotic and dynamic world and can’t live blissfully in the confines of your old officially unsupported Windows XP machine. Internet bandwidth is constantly evolving. Browsers are constantly evolving. The needs and expectations of web are constantly evolving. The types and formats of devices to consume the web are constantly evolving. And all of this means that web-based software is constantly evolving.

Making the call

When faced with the difficult decision to buy a packaged web product or hire an experienced firm to build something custom, you’ll do ok as long as you come in understanding what’s been mentioned above. The web isn’t static and neither is software so let’s just get that idea out of our head and look at what’s involved at that point. There just isn’t a solution that is easy, static and permanent - out-of-the-box or otherwise. When comparing the two options, here is what it usually boils down to.

1. Cost

Cost is probably the first thing on our minds and most difficult thing to evaluate because the off-the-shelf web software product has a pretty straight-forward pricing model (usually - eh hem, Microsoft), whereas the custom job is a more slippery little devil. It’s just plain hard to estimate web software, especially because most product owners just don’t know exactly what they want, can’t anticipate every need, and don’t have the time, energy or experience to think through all the scenarios. Put together the right team though and it’s possible. In either case, it’s quite typical that an initial investment on a custom web software project is going to be quite higher than an out-of-box solution, depending on how many add-ons and customizations might be needed. And again - the service you bought today may not be what you need tomorrow so what are your costs to adapt in both cases? What if you now have a customer who needs Excel export functionality but the service doesn’t provide that? Now all of a sudden the cost to add something to a custom installation is relatively minor and the cost to switch to an off-the-shelf product is enormous. Again, tricky stuff.

 2. Maintenance and Stability

 Typically, off-the-shelf software probably wins this one - usually. A software-as-a-service product often presents maintenance as a forget-about-it experience because the hosted solution will obviously be maintained by the service providers. Yay! No IT team and no urgent security hotfixes for you. Well, this is presuming that the service provider is reliable and doesn’t themselves follow poor security practices. If your product service provider instead has security holes and you can’t patch them, well now your hands are tied and your customers are angry. Not a good combination.

3. Flexibility and Scalability 

Here’s where it gets interesting and where items 1 and 2 can suddenly shift. Let’s pick an example. Jira is an excellent tool for managing tickets for software products. We use it here at Ashday quite heavily. However, what if you find that a year down the road you really want to use one or two custom Jira add-ons, but you chose to go with Jira cloud? Well, too bad - unless you now want to migrate to a custom solution after the fact. Oh, and you thought you’d never need more than 6-8 users but now you’re up to 12? So much for your $10/month/10 user plan because now it’s $84 for 12 users. That’s a major cost change due to only a slight underestimation of need. And the add-on problem may very well send you back to a custom implementation anyways with a migration cost to boot. So now cost = custom + off-the-shelf + migration because you’ve ended up paying for all of your options. Lastly, what if you need a tweak to your solution and you need it quick? Now you’re frustratingly waiting for news of an update to your software service that corresponds to your need, but it may never come. So flexibility and scalability can play a major role in whether or not that purchase choice was a good decision and you may not know for quite a while.

Hindsight is 10100 / 10100

It’s probably one of the most foolish endeavors to make a generic recommendation a product purchase, but if you consider these factors you are probably going to do ok. It really comes down to your greatest fear - spending too much, not having enough confidence in what you bought, or finding out it ultimately can’t do what you will eventually need it to. Whichever of these keeps you up at night watching reruns of The Office is probably the one you should give the most weight to when making a decision because you simply can’t predict everything that will happen. You can be certain, however, that all of these things matter and if you don’t prioritize them, according to the venerable Mr. Miyagi, you will “get squish, just like grape.

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Clint Randall

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