There are many software applications out in the world that perform just about any function someone is looking for. There are even some applications that perform so many different functions that you may never know or use all of them. Basic staples of most businesses, such as the Microsoft Office Suite, with applications like Word and Excel are among these very versatile programs. There are also countless software applications that span industries, like accounting or customer service applications, while others are extremely specific to a small facet of an industry, such as the software that might run an automated robot arm for an automobile manufacturing plant.
But even with all of those millions of software applications out there for sale, businesses often find that those programs are not specific enough to their companies needs, or they are missing a key component that would greatly improve productivity among its employees. The problem is that those applications, even ones that are specific to certain industries, are designed to be generic enough to be marketable to a wide variety of businesses.
The benefit of custom software applications, is that they are tailored to fit the exact needs of your company. Each company operates differently. They have found what processes work best for them, to make them a successful business, and make them most profitable. Generic software applications designed for your industry can often be used to fit most of the needs of your specific company, but usually your employees have to work around the quirks or the inconsistencies in that generic software to perform many actions that make your business unique and a leader in your industry. However, having custom software that works exactly how you need it to can greatly improve productivity, and decrease rework and multistep processes by your employees. Ultimately making your business more profitable and more efficient with the same amount of resources.
As a rule of thumb, custom software is going to cost more than buying generic software off the shelf. The reason for this is simple, generic software can be priced much lower, because the ultimate goal is to sell that software to a large group of people, and therefore spreading the cost of the development of that software over all of those sales. Custom software, however, is generally only purchased by one company -- the company that needs the specialized software. Do to this, the full development cost for that software's creation is absorbed by a single company.
Knowing this fact, the question then becomes, will the added benefit of having a custom software application designed for my businesses specific needs outweigh the cost of the software itself? Depending on the application needed, the cost of custom software can vary greatly, but often the long term benefits of making processes in the business more efficient and allowing employees to get the same amount of work or more done in less time will greatly outweight the up-front cost of the software. It's usually not a question of will the software pay for itself, it's just a matter of how much time will it take for the software to pay for itself.
The general answer to that question is that the possibilities are almost endless. Pretty much any idea that you can dream up can be done with software, or software that controls some kind of machine/hardware. Just search your favorite "app store" and you'll find more pieces of custom software that do more things than you could imagine. So, the general answer to that question, is that if you can think of an application, it can most likely be created.
So, with the general answer out of the way, the more important question might be what are some common solutions that custom software provides? In general, most software applications boil down to a simple function, which is to store and retrieve information. After all, that is why they call it the Information Age. So, to that end, many custom software applications are built to handle the specific needs of a company to handle their information, and present it in a way that is most efficient and useful to them. This could be customer databases, to store customer or order information, then be able to retrieve that customers order history, current balances, outstanding orders, etc. Then to be able to run reports on sales for a customer or group of customers, etc. All these items allow for better business management and customer service.
Other types of applications that tend to be specific to companies relate to their processes and procedures for fulfilling orders, manufacturing products, or other production/office related processes. The reason that businesses have these procedures in place is to ensure accuracy and a consistent production or customer experience. Many times, a custom application can allow a simple way to ensure that these specific procedures are followed in the correct order, notify employees when it is their responsibility to take the next step and put in checks and balances to ensure the procedure is followed with sign-offs, etc. It is often very difficult to get a generic application to be specific enough to meet the needs of your business' specific procedures.
Custom applications can be designed to run on a single workstation or designed to network together. They may be designed to provide a simple interface to the user and communicate back to a larger shared program running on a server in the companies IT area. These applications can come in all shapes and sizes and to fit any need, large or small. An application that runs on a salespersons laptop, for instance, with the purpose of quickly quoting a job could be a small program that doesn't communicate with anything. On the other hand, an application that retrieves customer information from a database in the "cloud" may involve several parts, including the cloud application to control and update the database, and a client application that is installed on many employee workstations.
Custom applications to communicate with hardware or machines is also quite common. Sometimes these machines or hardware devices are quite old and have outdated user software that runs on a computer to tell you the operating conditions of the machine. Often new software applications can be created to communicate with these devices and make the function of viewing the devices information and controlling it much easier and intuitive to the user.