In late July, as workforces around the world moved to a largely remote working environment, Microsoft rolled out Project Oakdale, a low-code platform to enable users to build and deploy apps right within Teams, the Redmond, Washington headquartered technology firm’s enterprise communication and collaboration platform.
Earlier, in January, Google Cloud acquired AppSheet, a low-code/ no-code application development platform for enterprises. With the integration of AppSheet with Google Cloud, employees at enterprises across the spectrum are able to build mobile apps simply by extracting data from a spreadsheet.
It’s no coincidence that two of the world’s largest and most powerful technology firms are proactively adding low-code/ no-code to their offerings.
Amidst all the frenzy around building and adopting cloud applications, SaaS, work from home (WFH) solutions and new video conferencing tools, low-code/no-code could emerge as the dark horse that powers enterprises during and in the aftermath of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
A low-code platform denotes software that enables programmers to create applications via simpler means other than traditional computer programming. This includes using graphical user interfaces (GUI) and pre-configured code to create apps faster. In simple terms, low-code and no-code is the automation of manual labour within programmer circles. Some low-code platforms suggest that they can help in creating apps within weeks, instead of months, and free-up software developers to focus on more important things rather than spend time on mundane repetitive coding activities.
While low-code is coding with a minimal programming language, no-code refers to software development that has no requirement for coding at all.
The idea to develop apps faster as compared to traditional waterfall models originated back in the 1980s with American software engineer Barry Bohem. British technology consultant James Martin built his Rapid Application Development (RAD) model based on inputs largely drawn from Bohem’s Spiral model.
Who knew that Bohem’s approach towards simplifying the creation of software would see a resurgence in 2019-2020 as low code/ no code development?
“Most IT organisations have disparate systems that don't necessarily work well together. Every small change impacts multiple systems that are hard to coordinate resulting in ever increasing IT backlogs, longer delivery cycles, cost overruns, and businesses struggling to launch new products and initiatives,” says Raghunandan Dixit, business and strategy principal, growth & solutions, at Persistent Systems.
Companies, he adds, now have a need to move faster, digitize and modernize solutions. This need to move faster and digitize sooner has never been more important for enterprises than during the pandemic.
A good example of low-code in action is the manner in which Milwaukee based industrial automation solutions provider Rockwell Automation used Microsoft’s low-code platform to re-train its 23,000 employees as low-code software engineers.
“As part of Rockwell’s digital transformation, we are focused on transforming everyone across the organization into engineers who can leverage technology to automate and simplify their jobs,” Chris Wagner, analytics architect at Rockwell Automation, wrote in a Microsoft blog.
Closer home, Bengaluru-based IT services firm Mphasis has used Microsoft’s low-code development platform to build ‘employee outreach’, an application that tracks the health of employees, enables work from home facilities; monitors attendance and resolves IT complaints for its 26,000-strong global workforce.
Like Microsoft, Redwood Shores, California headquartered Oracle, cloud computing software company Salesforce, Google and homegrown SaaS firm Zoho have their own versions of low-code platforms.
Rahul Ranjan, co-founder and CEO of edtech firm LeapLearner India, believes that low-code could change the game in coding with one big advantage. “The ability to be able to create apps without a technical degree is allowing people with good algorithmic intelligence and computational thinking skills to become coders, hence the growth,” he said.
Speaking of growth, a 2019 Forrester Research report said that total spending on the category would touch $21.2 billion by 2022, with an annual growth rate of 40%. The top three drivers for that growth, according to the report, would be accelerated digital transformation, reduced IT backlog and reduced dependency on hard-to-hire skills, criteria that also coincidentally matches the requirements from IT teams during the current Covid-19 crisis.
No-code gets more interesting when it brings to the fore the concept of citizen developers.
Citizen developers are individuals who do not need to know, or may not know any programming languages, but can create applications from scratch just by using a versatile graphical user interface.
“As businesses have started increasingly relying on data, successful executives have built hacks with widely used tools such as Excel. We see no-code tools helping these executives, often monikered ‘citizen developers’, perform their jobs better,” said Piyush Kharbanda, partner at Temasek Holdings backed venture capital firm, Vertex Ventures.
In terms of what an investor such as Vertex would look for before investing in a low code/no code startup, Kharbanda said there has to be a strong hook that solves a pain point being faced by a large number of professionals, along with understanding how they handle data and the underlying integration architecture, which is an important factor that could constrain adoption.
“We do think an immature handling of data and overall access/security architecture could potentially be a problem for these companies,” he adds.
However, the adoption of low-code by enterprises is still in its infancy on account of a host of issues which range from technology complexity, vendor lock-in, or maybe even a basic lack of understanding of how low-code functions.
“Scaling automation is a typical problem and many companies could have invested in licenses not knowing how to leverage its potential. Secondly, enterprise automation can seem very complex if you’re not using the right tools and technologies,” Persistent’s Dixit said.
“To ensure the success of any project, execution requires the right mix of domain, tech and skilled consultants,” he added.
LeapLearner’s Ranjan sees a lack of integration using APIs as a hindrance. “This limits the ability to create applications and systems which can solve complex problems and are AI enabled. Hopefully as the low-code/ no-code eco system grows, this will change,” he said.
But some low-code platform startups, such as Bengaluru based Mate Labs, are working towards creating a low-code environment that would be able to address these challenges.
“Right from data cleaning, to data pre-processing, to feature engineering to finding the right algorithm, to training them on the right set of parameters and deploying the machine learning models, this entire set is automated,” said Mate Labs co-founder and CEO Rahul Vishwakarma.
The Mate Labs platform also lets users tweak it. Vishwakarma said that the customization was limited to how clients want their users to access the application.
Despite the challenges, low-code/no-code isn’t going away. A recent study by Harvard Business Review found that out of 450 professionals surveyed, 52% believed low-code development could encourage business professionals and managers to be more innovative in product development and 44% felt it could deliver solutions more quickly compared to the traditional software development processes.
An August 2019 report by technology research firm Gartner said that more than 65% of application development by 2024 would occur through low-code/no-code platforms. More than three-fourths of enterprises, the reports said, are expected to use at least four low-code products for their IT needs.
While the ongoing pandemic has accelerated the adoption of the cloud, robotic process automation solutions, digitization and digital transformation in general, the rise in the adoption of low-code platforms could also see software development, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies become truly democratized.