Organizations are in intense competition with each other to speed up time to market and enhance customer experience. To stay competitive, companies need to accelerate business application development and deployment without burdening their IT departments, which tend to be busy with long-term maintenance and strategic development.
Building apps and simplifying and customizing workflows and tasks using traditional programming techniques takes time and is expensive. Also, many small companies can't afford to have full-time professional developers on staff.
An emerging trend
The demand for low-code and no-code development tools is driven by more and more businesses investing in digital transformation. Businesses want to enable employees to customize business processes and create reliable business apps quickly and economically. This is why they're turning to low- and no-code development platforms.
According to Gartner, 65 percent of all application development will shift to low-code application platforms by 2024. Forrester expects the market for no-code development platforms, which was worth roughly $3.8 billion in 2017, to grow to $21.2 billion by 2022.
In 2019, Forrester reported that more than a third of developers surveyed used low-code software and platforms. The IT research firm expected that number to increase partly because of Microsoft's emphasis on marketing its Power Platform apps.
The silver bullet
Low-code development is an easier and faster process of building applications that doesn't require intricate, line-by-line coding. Some coding, however, is required and can be handled by users who have rudimentary programming knowledge. The low-code process follows a visual development approach, which includes drag-and-drop tools, illustrative techniques, and templates to enable citizen or business developers to develop operational apps for business.
Instead of writing lines and lines of code, users with basic coding skills can create a program on a low-code development platform by dragging and dropping modules, modelling with the help of a GUI, and using templates. Low-code tools make it possible to customize an implementation or create a simple app in a few days, sometimes even in a few hours.
No-code development doesn't require any programming. Users with no programming knowledge or technical skills can create business applications and digitize business tasks and processes that don't require custom coding.
The history of low-code/no-code
Gartner first came up with the term "low-code." That was in 2014. The concept of enabling app development, however, without professional developers, arose long before 2014. An article by Davin Wilfrid on the Quick Base blog quotes the late James Martin, British technology expert and writer:
The number of programmers available per computer is shrinking so fast that most computers in the future must be put to work at least in part without programmers. That observation comes from Martin's Application Development without Programmers, published in 1982.
James Martin was an authority on Information Technology Engineering (ITE), Computer-aided Software Engineering (CASE), fourth-generation programming languages (4GL), and Rapid Application Development (RAD). These technologies aimed to make things simpler for business operations and IT departments by enabling users to handle application development to some extent.
None of these processes really took off because the solutions were not capable of creating scalable apps. They also did not support development best practices for testing, documentation, version control and deployment, and increased security risks.
The concept, however, did not die out. It was useful. As technology evolved, technology solutions for business improved. Low-code development platforms have steadily emerged across the last decade of technology growth. The early low-code solutions didn't come with the drawbacks of the earlier technologies.
Existing low- and no-code tools
Low-code platforms can be classified according to the purpose they serve. Forrester has grouped them into these categories:
Well-known low-code platforms include Salesforce, Zoho Creator, Google App Maker, Mendix, Appian, OutSystems, Trackvia, and ServiceNow's AppEngine. No-code platforms include Airtable, Appsheet, Betty Blocks, Pipedrive, Makerpad, and KissFlow. Google acquired AppSheet, a mobile app development platform, earlier this year.
The low- and no-code future
While low-code and no-code development tools can enable those with very basic coding skills — as well as those with no programming knowledge or any technical experience — to create simple applications for business operations, they are not suited for complexity and customization.
Large-scale enterprise applications for long-term use and sophisticated interactive websites, such as those created for Airbnb and Uber, require complex development. By and large, only expert professional developers who have code-level understanding of how programs work can handle such tasks.
For now, low- and no-code tools aren't capable of replacing the line-by-line coding approach to complex development tasks. Low- and no-code platforms have evolved to include best practices, governance, data management, advanced controls for compliance and security, reporting, and collaboration. Today, low- and no-code development is supported by a growing ecosystem of low-code creators and technology partners.
AI and machine learning are facilitating the development of low- and no-code tools with advanced capabilities, such as natural language processing and the ability to offer suggestions. Quite a few low- and no-code platforms are AI-enabled.
Benefits of low-code development for employers include agility, cost-efficiency, potential for attractive return on investment, innovation, flexibility, and relatively simple and fast maintenance. Low- and no-code tools enable companies to avoid IT bottleneck problems and create apps in-house instead of having to outsource app development.
Advanced low-code platforms offer compatibility across different environments, enabling developers to build an app once and use it on various platforms. Low- and no-code technology has enabled small and medium companies that lack large IT staffs to narrow the competitive gap with much larger enterprises in reducing time to market and improving customer service.
Low- and no-code tools enable employees who have little or no coding expertise to simplify business processes and tasks and get their work done, as well as put their ideas to work quickly without having to wait until IT clears their backlog.
Low- and no-code platforms are probably not the future of software development. They are suitable for building simple business apps, and modifying processes and tasks at hand, but they're not capable of handling complexity or creating unique experiences.
For the time being, it's important that businesses learn when to use low- and no-code tools and when to assign a project to skilled personnel. Low- and no-code tools are not normally the right choice for long-term solutions and highly-customized apps.