Is low-code/no-code the future of application development?
As popular and robust as these tools and platforms have become, low-code/no-code is not going to replace professional developers anytime soon, experts say.
Even though most organizations have been digitizing their business processes for decades, when COVID-19 sent millions of office workers home it exposed just how hands-on many businesses actually are.
With people working from home for the foreseeable future, leaning over to ask a colleague for input on a project or to find out what happened to a proposal—even with all of the instant digital communications tools at their disposal—isn’t practical, quick, or efficient.
To counter this problem, many businesses have turned to low-code and no-code development platforms. Using drag-and-drop interfaces, these platforms give non-programmers the power to develop business workflow applications and then integrate them into larger business processes.
With so much coding capability now available to so many new business users, it calls into question how business applications will be developed. Specifically, if low-code/no-code is the future of programming.
The answer is yes and no. Given the difficulty many business users have getting IT to change existing applications and workflows, the use of low-code platforms to solve point problems like tracking work-from-home laptops, makes a lot of sense. But, building large-scale, enterprise-class applications that power entire organizations still requires high-skilled programmers, said Thomas Stiehm, CTO of Coveros, an Agile and DevOps consultancy.
“No, it isn’t the future of code,” Stiehm said. “It certainly has a place in the future and will be leveraged to make many applications. It will not replace other ways of creating software because low-code breaks down when the complexity of the solution increases. We saw the same thing with Visual Basis in the ’90s. VB was valuable and a lot of software was written in VB. In the end, it was complexity required by some applications that caused VB to break down and no longer be a good solution. Low code will be the same.”
Low-code platforms typically require users to have some rudimentary knowledge of programming where no-code platforms are 100% drag-and-drop with no programming knowledge needed. The difference between low-code and no-code platforms is minor and sometimes just a matter of semantics, said Amit Zavery, vice president and head of platform for Google Cloud. Google recently acquired low-code platform provider AppSheet.
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“Many times people just use [the terms] interchangeably because you can do some things with no-code in a low-code tool anyway,” he said, “and, in a low-code tool, you can do everything you can do in no-code.”
Even before COVID hit, use of low-code was growing. According to IT research firm Forrester, in 2019 just over a third of developers said they used low-code platforms and products. Forrester predicted (pre-COVID-19) that number would increase to over half of developers by mid-2020. They attributed this rise, at least in part, to Microsoft promoting the use of its PowerApps, Flow, Power BI, and Power Platform products.
“Microsoft’s ‘free’ and good-enough products will be adopted both in straightforward and sophisticated use cases and serve as catalysts for further growth—and consolidation—in the low-code market,” Forrester said.
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Just because low-code isn’t useful for building enterprise-class applications like ERP, it doesn’t mean that low-code can only be used for simple applications either, said Karen Panetta, IEEE fellow and dean of Graduate Education at Tufts University’s School of Engineering. By standardizing application development across different developers, low-code can give developers the prebuilt blocks they need to create complex applications. Low-code also reduces the learning curve for training new people to maintain and modify the code.
“Low-code allows businesses to be more responsive to customers by implementing new features or implementing new technologies and security protocols,” she said. “This also supports a new breed of developers, who may no longer need to be low-level experts in coding or numerous programming languages.”
A good example of low-code allowing non-coders to develop complex applications are website development platforms. Not that many years ago, developing a website was an expensive, time-consuming task that required specialized skills and coding knowledge. Today, platforms like Wix and WordPress themes like Divi allow anyone to build very interactive and feature-rich websites.
With the COVID-19 showing no signs of easing, Marcus Torres, vice president of product platform management at ServiceNow, believes low-code is only going to gain converts and grow in importance as business people work solve process and workflow problems the shift to work from home looks like it’s here to stay. ServiceNow has a low-code offering called App Engine.
“The adoption of low-code was limited in small organizations by the lack of skills to address business complexity while, in large organizations, it was limited due to the lack of oversight, support and maintenance over time,” Torres said. “The [COVID-19] crisis was not a pause agent. It was a change agent. Businesses, employees, and customers have changed irrevocably. Low-code will be part of the new support system because workers realized that value during the crisis. It will become a stable tool for them to draw on to be more effective inside or outside the office.”
Even so, don’t expect low-code to replace traditional programming methods anytime soon, said Zavery of Google Cloud. Big, complex applications are just that, big and complex. No amount of abstraction will replace the need to understand how an application functions at the line-of-code level.
“If I’m building a very sophisticated e-commerce website, if I’m building an Uber or an Airbnb … you are not able to build any of things using those tools. No-code. Low-code,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference. It’s going to be done by professional developers using professional tools.”