The notion that a suitably sophisticated platform might ease the custom coding work of software developers has been around for many years.
Fourth-generation languages (4GLs) like PowerBuilder and Delphi touted such ease of development, opening up enterprise software creation to less seasoned application creators while simplifying and accelerating the work of their more experienced colleagues.
4GLs, in turn, led to Rapid Application Development (RAD) tools that added declarative techniques to the mix. Why write code by hand when you can create business logic by checking boxes and selecting values off of lists?
Today, modern approaches to building software in complex distributed environments give rise to a range of low-code and no-code application creation platforms. While these tools take pages out of the 4GL and RAD playbooks, they also give developers the ability to build both user interfaces as well as robust business and integration logic with little or no hand-coding necessary.
As a result, the low-code/no-code space is a rapidly emerging market – or perhaps more than one, as emerging markets can be extraordinarily dynamic. In fact, the vendors in this space are remarkably diverse, and are gradually fleshing out a spectrum with no-code on one extreme and low-code on the other.
Regardless of where vendors fall on this spectrum, one fact is clear: the time has come for low-code/no-code platforms. The combination of the speed of delivery of custom applications, combined with their flexibility and business focus, means that enterprises no longer have to settle for slow, traditional software development practices – practices that are a poor fit for today’s rapid, digital world.
Differentiating Low-Code Platforms
At one end of the low-code/no-code spectrum fall the low-code platforms. These tools are more for professional developers than “citizen” developers, and focus on accelerating and simplifying the development process for general purpose applications, rather than focusing application creation on a narrower set of business use cases into the hands of business people as no-code platforms do.
OutSystems is an example of a leading low-code, general purpose platform. In some ways, platforms like OutSystems’ are RAD platforms, but with an important difference from the first-generation RAD tools of the 1990s: modern low-code platforms work within today’s enterprise distributed computing context.
Enterprise integration, for example, is part of the low-code platform story, rather than an add-on as is typical with no-code alternatives. Abstracting the choice of user device is also an essential capability of the OutSystems platform: developers build the application once, and then can automatically deploy to desktop or mobile environments automatically.
It’s important to note that as its name would suggest, low-code platforms do expect a certain amount of hand-coding. The focus of such a capability, however, is to provide the developer with the option of hand-coding when they would prefer the level of control that such code provides.
For all other tasks – which make up the vast majority of the day-to-day work of a developer – the platform handles the heavy lifting, providing the developer with a simple declarative interface.
The No-Code Option
At the other extreme from low-code players like OutSystems are vendors like QuickBase, who focus mostly on non-technical business users as its “citizen developers.” Such users never write or work directly with code, as all of their interactions with the platform involve dragging and dropping pre-built, business-centric components and configuring them via declarative interfaces.
The range of applications such citizen developers can create with a low-code platform is remarkable, but nevertheless constitutes a class of business-oriented applications that leverage the components the platform makes available – form entry applications, project management applications, timesheet applications, and the like.
Such applications, therefore, differ in breadth and capability from the true bespoke applications that development teams can build with low-code platforms like OutSystems.
Furthermore, integrating apps built on no-code platforms often requires a third-party integration tool like Zapier or Workato. Such tools are themselves no-code for simple integrations, but complex enterprise scenarios require the assistance of knowledgeable integration specialists.
Follow the Heritage
There are numerous other vendors on the spectrum between no and low-code – and all of them have different strengths and capabilities, far more diverse than you’re likely to find in a mature market.
Understanding this diversity, therefore, is a challenge for anyone interested in what a low-code/no-code platform can do for them. A good place to start: the heritage of the platform. What are the vendor’s core strengths, and now do those impact its low-code/no-code strategy?
For example, the Salesforce App Cloud is essentially a low-code platform – one that is particularly well-suited for building sales and marketing-related applications on the Salesforce platform.
The ServiceNow platform is a similar example – a platform that is designed to build bespoke service management-related applications.
There are also mobile-first or mobile-only players in the low-code/no-code space like Kony. Kony is a low-code platform and associated back-end environment that supports the ability for citizen developers to build simple, form-based mobile applications.
A final example is the Appian Platform, which owes its heritage to the business process management capabilities that Appian has offered for several years.
OutSystems, however, stands alone in its breadth of capability and focus on accelerating development as well as building apps for the full range of user devices, due to its heritage as a RAD tool. Simple, drag-and-drop application creation has its place, but for any enterprise app that requires deeper or more purpose-built capability, a platform like OutSystems is a better choice.
The Intellyx Take
The sophisticated focus on the needs of the developer are an important difference between low-code platforms like OutSystems and the earlier generation of RAD tooling.
In the early days, RAD streamlined easier tasks but weren’t able to simplify more difficult ones. Today, thanks to better technology as well as modern, cloud-based loosely-coupled architectures, low-code platforms are able to streamline and automate the more difficult challenges of enterprise development – challenges developers would generally prefer not to tackle in any case, as they don’t require much creativity.
Will the low-code and no-code markets separate into distinct markets, or will they eventually overlap to the extent that we can consider them a single market? No one knows for sure – and that uncertainty is a common characteristic across all emerging markets.
Customer buying behavior, after all, is what shapes markets, so to understand this space it’s best to look at what enterprise buyers are looking for.
In the low-code/no-code world, business users have more of a say in the creation of business apps than they had before, either by creating them themselves, or working more closely with developers in an iterative, lightweight matter.
This user-centricity has long been a principle of Agile development, but one that has been difficult to achieve in practice. Better Agile processes is only part of the story, however.
The broader enterprise trend driving the development of the low-code/no-code market is the rise of “citizen” computing – and with it, the resolution of shadow IT issues as enterprises transform their IT organizations into service providers rather than gatekeepers.
Copyright © Intellyx LLC. OutSystems is an Intellyx client. At the time of writing, no other organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx clients. Intellyx retains full editorial control over the content of this article. Image credit: OutSystems.