All About Low-Code Platforms

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby on Dec 21, 2016

One of the biggest challenges of the modern IT department is how to get the rest of the business to work cohesively with them. Most companies struggle with communication, agreement, and tactics when it comes to designing, securing, and implementing new technology. Backlogs for software can pile up quickly. Frustration can mount. However, new technology - coined as “low-code development platforms” - are trying to change this. Throughout these platforms, developers and business professionals alike can start speaking the same language - one that does not take years to learn.

In this article, we look at low-code development platforms: what they are, and how they fit into the current business and technology world. We also review the market: its evolution and where it’s going. We get some input from experts on how these platforms affect their industry. Finally, we recommend some things to ponder before considering your own journey to using low-code platforms.


What are Low-Code Development Platforms?

Low-code development platforms are tools that allow professionals with limited programming experience to build applications (apps) quickly and easily. As the title denotes, low-code platforms have little in the way of hand coding, but accomplish building apps through declarative and visual tools that describe what the app should do. These types of tools do not require writing code. Examples of these tools include drag-and-drop, point-and-click, and metadata models. The application’s logic is built through a visual arrangement, not through coding.

The platforms are still evolving, as is their use within enterprises, but they have already significantly decreased app development time and diminished the cost of development. Low-code development platforms are being credited for transferring the building, deployment, running, scaling, and management of apps from what was once strictly the Information Technology (IT) group to the business group in the enterprises that use them.

Additionally, low-code platforms allow developers a reprieve from having to write all of the code for a project, and instead just develop what is necessary. This saves time and allows them to complete more projects.

Consolidate efforts. Synchronize sprints. Manage resources.

Agile Project Management Dashboard

Smartsheet is a cloud-based platform that allows teams and organizations to plan projects, streamline operations, and scale software development efforts. See Smartsheet in action.

 

Watch a demo


Low-Code Platforms and the Rise of Citizen Developers

Apps are often thought of as small pre-packaged software programs for your mobile device that are downloaded for use. In the mainstream, they are understood to exist as unique entities that perform unique functions. In the case of mobile apps, this may be true, but even mobile apps may be used to communicate with tools from other media. For example, certain websites have apps that allow users to synchronize their data between platforms. Apps can also be accessed without downloading anything, such as search engine software that exists completely within your browser window. Further, apps can act as links between two disparate programs or as optimizers in appearance or function for your currently used programs. 

Apps are meant to solve problems. Whether those problems are trivial, such as being able to add silly hats and mustaches to your photos, or more serious, such as being able to access your banking information, apps are designed to add value to the lives or businesses of the people who use them. For enterprises, the ability to develop apps that solve their problems and add value to their current infrastructure is critical to staying competitive. A study by Intuit Quickbase of their low code platform users found that three types of apps are built: 65% regularly build "get work done" apps, 42% regularly build "run the business" apps, and 27% regularly build "delight the customer" apps.

This relatively new market of low-code and no-code development platforms has led to the rise of citizen developers (or power users). Historically, most business users have not had the technical ability to develop software solutions themselves. At the same time, company developers have had to deal with the ever-increasing complexity of their business’ applications. As a result, new apps that could solve business problems took extensive time to create and implement ushering in the problem of Shadow IT. (Shadow IT is when firms receive software that their IT either doesn’t know about or approve.) At one time, Shadow IT was limited strictly to Excel macros and simple programs from office supply stores. However, a Forbes magazine article in late 2013 reported that 40% of IT spending in companies is unbeknownst to the actual IT department. Shadow IT has become a problem because it can duplicate efforts, present security risks, and create huge inefficiencies that costs businesses money. Citizen developers however, are sanctioned by IT. 

Citizen developers are business users who create apps and technology solutions without a coding skill set, using low-code (or no-code) development platforms. In a survey by Intuit Quickbase in September 2015, 97% of citizen developers have the technical proficiency that is the level of word processing and spreadsheet-related formulas. Thirty-six percent of citizen developers have front-end web interface skills such as being able to code in HTML, CSS, and JAVASCRIPT. Eight percent have the traditional back-end coding skill set ( being able to fully code in JAVA, .NET, C++, RUBY, or PHP).  In other words, the vast majority of users are not IT professionals. Further, businesses are coming to understand that citizen developers can get the job done. According to a Gartner Report in 2015, by 2020 it is estimated that 70 percent of large enterprises will have established citizen developer policies.


Low-Code vs. No-Code Platforms

The difference between low-code and no-code platforms must be identified. No-code platforms focus almost exclusively on the citizen developer market. It is assumed that they do not customize quite as well as the low-code platforms because every function is pre-built by the vendor. Low-code platforms do not eliminate the need for developers, and the user interface is not optimized for non-programmer use. However, most enterprises prefer low-code platforms for long-term use because they know that they are equipped to build just about any type of business application they can conceive.

Application programming interfaces (APIs) allow programmers to write apps that are consistent with an operating environment. APIs are the specifications that offer some of programs’ code in a limited way, so that other functions and programs can be built into or from it. For example, Google Maps has their API available. With Google Maps API, Yelp was able to embed these maps into their reviews for businesses. Simply put, with APIs one app can use the functionality of another in their platform, and therefore connect them. This is not the same as open-source, as the original program only offers a portion of the code. Most low-code platforms allow for easy integration of APIs, so that the app can assimilate different data and capabilities.


What Do the Acronyms RAD, SaaS, and PaaS, Have To Do With Low-Code Development?

Businesses are experiencing changes in their infrastructure. Instead of developing their own software programs and services for internal use, many are bringing in services that do most of the work. Cloud services are becoming part (the biggest part) of the infrastructure. APIs are being used to connect this infrastructure. The methodology is becoming more agile, and development is quicker.

Rapid Application Development (RAD) is a software development model based on the concept that better products can be brought to market more quickly through a less-structured process. RAD came about during the heyday of Business Process Reengineering (BPR), and today most software systems are built on at least a few of the RAD concepts. These concepts include early prototyping, reusing built software pieces, and iterative delivery. This is in contrast to more structured development environments, such as Waterfall software development. Low-code platforms have developed as a part of RAD, although other RAD tools often occupy the same market space. Low-code and no-code platforms are an excellent example of implementing RAD, especially as they apply to the changing communication between IT and business groups.

Software as a Service (SaaS) are cloud application services. These replace traditional on-device software that is installed on the company’s servers. A third-party vendor manages these applications, and the user interface is accessible within the business. SaaS can be accessed in a web browser over the Internet. Some examples of SaaS are email services, collaboration and meeting software, and customer relationship management (CRM) software. SaaS is meant for end users.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) are cloud platform services. The same benefits that SaaS brought to applications are brought to software development. PaaS is the platform that creates software, delivered by a third-party vendor over the Internet. Applications can be developed, tested, and deployed with PaaS. Businesses typically use PaaS to develop their framework, for analytics, and for services that enhance their already existing applications. Experts agree that the future of PaaS is in low-code and no-code applications, because it extends the amount of users that want their product to go from just the technical to the more general professional.

Low-Code and Business Process Management (BPM)

BPM is a systematic look at your business processes: how they are organized and how to improve them. Business Process Management Software (BPMS) was originally developed to improve operational efficiency by systematically improving these processes with a suite of linked software. Some resources discuss the evolution from BPMS into process-focused low-code platforms, and some experts note that there is a slight difference between BPMS and low-code platforms, but it is merely ideological. They mean that the results of low-code platforms and low-code BPM are slightly different: BPM is more holistic, but the movement towards more rapid, agile development is the same.

Other companies, especially those that develop low-code platforms, note that the difference between BPMS and low-code platforms is that they are more agile. The declarative tooling is not present in a BPMS. Further, there are fewer training requirements for low-code, and the product is quicker overall. However, some BPMS are starting to incorporate low-code so that the best of both are present in their software packages.


Features of Low-Code Development Platforms

When it comes to low-code development platforms, there are several myths. Low-code is between the extremes: neither a code generation tool nor an integrated development environment (IDE). Perhaps the myths are spread via marketing campaigns that seek to sell products to the most general user, or by traditionalists who prefer coding everything from scratch. In any case, here are some facts about what low-code platforms are:

  • Developers, not just business professionals, can and should use low-code platforms. Since the requirements for developers are changing and increasing, low-code allows developers to spend fewer hours working on hand coding, so they can complete more projects.
  • Custom programming can still be used with low-code platforms. Although simple apps can certainly be developed with low-code platforms, customs apps that are appropriate for enterprise services can also be developed. These apps can be integrated with other apps, databases, and have customized code inserted. 
  • Low-code platforms can support large-scale enterprises. Most low-code options are scalable. This means that small projects as well as enterprise-level applications with huge and growing user bases can be supported in multiple environments. Forrester Research recommends looking for, “Product architectures designed to support high scale, features to coordinate the efforts of multiple development teams, fully expressive tools, support for governing large portfolios of applications, and flexible pricing models.”

What Does the Low-Code Platform Market Look Like?

Forrester, an independent research and advisory firm in business and technology, notes that the current market for low-code platforms is broad and fragmented. The market is being pushed along by many factors, evolving the business of software development into a new landscape. These factors include:

  • Increased funding for low-code platform companies: With the evolution and expansion of businesses that are developing these platforms for use, the market will be in a cycle of continuous change. Microsoft and Salesforce have recently added low-code tools into their cloud-based platforms. Google also recently announced that their G Suite would feature some low-code development tools for building applications. In the Forrester Wave evaluation, released in April 2016, 42 different companies had low-code offerings on the market. 
  • Increased use cases for low-code platforms: With increased use cases, the businesses that offer low-code platforms to a niche are looking for ways to expand their offerings for the more general use cases. 
  • Changes in enterprise IT structure: The traditional IT model is changing rapidly. For example, bimodal IT (although considered controversial by some) is being adopted by more large companies. Bimodal IT is a framework for enterprise IT where the traditional development practices run alongside rapid application development. Mode 1 focuses on the stability and maintenance aspects, while Mode 2 is all about agility and innovation. With these parallel IT tracks, business professionals are starting to fill historically programmer roles. Without the same level of skills as a traditional programmer, new tools such as low-code platforms are becoming critical.

5 Key Segments of the Low-Code Landscape

In a recent report by Forrester, the low-code market was broken down into five vendor segments. Regardless of the segment, the intent of low-code platforms to decrease a developer’s workload is constant. Further, they all address the development of the user’s experience, data models, data management logic, and business logic. The low-code platform segments include: 

  1. General purpose platforms: These programs target the majority of the users, those who need management of the life cycle of applications and portfolios, as well as addressing database and workflow needs. These platforms boast abundant declarative tooling and address the user experience. Most of the offerings on the market cover a huge amount of functions; however, they do not go into deep niche categories like BPM.
  2. Process application platforms: These platforms aim to fill the niche that is concerned with process automation, case management, and social interaction features to manage business processes. These platforms aim to support BPM, and replace heavy BPM suites. 
  3. Database application platforms: These platforms target the data found in relational databases. Forrester reports that this type of platform has the best potential to assist the citizen developer.
  4. Request-handling platforms: These platforms are for applications that deal with requests of all types. This broad category is mostly for IT service management, and is suitable for low-code platforms because customization is required to work with all of the enterprise data needs.
  5. Mobile application platforms: Mobile apps have been the largest growing segment over the last few years, and will continue to grow. Due to the cost and complexity of being able to support both Apple and Android devices with code, low-code platforms are critical for allowing companies to deploy mobile apps that can work with both their internal and customer-facing business needs.

History of Low-Code Development Platforms

Low-code development platforms came into formal existence after Forrester’s Clay Richardson and John Rymer put out their 2014 report, "New Development Platforms Emerge For Customer-Facing Applications." In this report, they coined the term and gave a basic overview of the technology, its use, and the marketplace. However, the technology itself is not new. Fourth generation programming languages (4GLs) reduced the complexity of programming languages so that application development tools could be developed. These program languages were more about what the program is supposed to do, versus how it is supposed to do it. 4GLs led to rapid application development (RAD) tools, capitalizing on their ability to create business logic and visual modeling. Concurrently, cloud computing made these tools capable of being more robust. Cloud hosting has provided the updates, maintenance, storage, and support that enterprises need from vendors.


What Software Developers Have to Say About Low-Code

The reviews from developers about these products are mixed. On the one hand, some developers see these platforms as assistive, lessening the burden of backed-up projects. For example, a “new class” of business developers can work on user interfaces while problems with more algorithmic complexity can be left to the expert technical developers. Further, with business professionals becoming more educated and able to use these platforms, the process gaps that IT professionals cannot know about are filled in. As for their role in the business, the IT department can become more of a modern service provider and partner to the business, instead of a roadblock that everyone is trying to avoid.

 

According to Moiz Nizamuddin, Senior SDET at REI, "Business people shouldn’t have to develop code. It’s nice to see websites and apps developed without needing to be hand-coded. These newer platforms (like the low-code ones) allow for the ingenuity to solve problems and make things efficient and dynamic. Low-code platforms will make life easier for lots of small businesses, especially considering the cost of bringing on new and more developers. However, it remains to be seen how well these products will scale with larger enterprises. Some of the versions that I have used in large enterprise work lacked performance and were high in resource consumption. Low-code platforms are useful, but they should be able to meet your needs. For example, in the case of images, some platforms don't optimize. Some professionals wouldn’t know that they cannot put up an image in the same quality that it was given to them, that it could take too long to load. I recommend doing performance testing of the application that you have developed to ensure that it loads properly and works well. There are tools out there available to help with this."

On the other side of the argument, some software developers feel like these platforms may take away development jobs or make their jobs more difficult with fixing errors made by well-meaning “citizen developers.” This fear speaks to the shift that will necessarily occur in IT departments worldwide with the widespread adoption of this software, a shift that may just be in the responsibilities of the department, and how they communicate with the business groups. Since many of these platforms are actually geared towards IT professionals’ use and do not completely eliminate the need for coding, the scenario of developers being replaced by the programs may be unlikely. However, the platforms do signal a change in an industry that is critically understaffed.


When to Consider Moving to a Low-Code Platform

Traditional hand coding is never going to go away. Low-code platforms are certainly not a magic bullet that fixes all business problems, IT problems, or communication problems within an enterprise. However, there are some natural times when implementing this newer technology would be helpful.

  • As part of development strategy: Near-real-time collaboration between business and IT can be possible. With development moving so quickly, rapid adjustments are realistic, and allow business stakeholders to dodge the never-ending cycle of meetings and iterations that can slow productivity.
  • When the human resource pool cannot be expanded: Developers can spend more time working on complex problems and necessary code. 
  • When you need increased responsiveness: One code base can be used on multiple platforms (smartphones, desktop Internet, and tablets). 
  • When you need time and cost savings:  More functionality can be added more quickly, and updates can be added at any time in an easier fashion. Both make the stability and reliability of your system better. On December 7, 2016, Nucleus Research, an independent quantitative technology research firm, hosted a webinar that described how one company recouped the cost of building their applications with low-code development platforms in six months. The return on investment (ROI) was 253 percent. Another company they discussed had an ROI of 442 percent.
  • When you need to become more customer-centric: With a more stable product, and better infrastructure (with less shadow IT), customers will see increased responsiveness to their requests.

How to Make a Choice in Low-Code Platform Vendors

It is clear that there are many companies currently providing this platform, some established firmly in the market with other products and services, and some that are up-and-comers just launching into low-code. Making a choice between the vendors’ offerings that is appropriate for your business should be done carefully and artfully. The platform that you choose should be:

  • Awesome (good-looking, attention grabbing)
  • Connected
  • Secure
  • Personal (it’s your business, not everyone else’s)
  • Social
  • Able to be developed and put out there quickly (one-click test and deployment)

In January 2016, Forrester Research performed a review of 42 vendors with low-code platform offerings. This review breaks down the current platforms into segments, and ranks the top 14. New offerings have emerged on the market since then, and giants such as Google have announced their intent to enter the space. It is clear that the market for low-code platforms will change and develop quickly.
Forrester listed some characteristics to consider for when choosing a program, and recommends reviewing each of your considered platforms specifically looking at:

  • Visual configuration
  • Declarative tooling
  • Drag-and-drop components
  • Guardrails
  • Whether they offer a free/freemium model
  • Whether it supports different types of apps
  • Whether it targets your type of business
  • Whether their maintenance is supportive enough

Experts from around the web also say that consumers should look at whether the platform has version control and other tools of proper governance. They want consumers to ask which low-code platforms can be used with compliance-heavy businesses reliant on stringent security protocols, such as banking. 


The Future of Low-Code Development Platforms

Forrester Research said that the low-code market was at $1.7 billion in 2015, and estimate that it will go up to about $15.4 billion by 2020. They note that the low-code platform providers are seeing sales increases of more than 50 percent per year.

Future challenges are another matter entirely. Many experts and commentators in the software industry want to see the platform providers focus on security and compliance environments. Some see the challenge of having offline capabilities for mobile applications as the future direction of this software. Cloud-based applications are only going to increase in functionality and speed. Companies want the data stable on the back end for multiple devices so that the front end user has a great experience. The last big challenge that experts speak of is that IT shops will have to get used to considering overall enterprise productivity, not just development productivity.
 

 

According to Chris Skelly, founder and CEO of ChatLogix, "We developed the ChatLogix platform to enable organizations to communicate with their customers via the messaging apps that people use every day.  After all, people want to communicate with businesses as easily as they do with their friends through their favorite messaging apps … no hold times, no downloads, just start the conversation.  

What we’ve found is that conversations are so data-rich that normal development cycles can’t keep up. Instead of weeks and months, ChatBot development cycles can be measured in hours and days. The ChatLogix low-code development platform enables organizations to continually refine and improve their ChatBots providing positive customer experiences. 

Our ChatBots evaluate user sentiment, problem resolution rates and usage patterns regularly during the course of each day. ChatBots should constantly adapt based on users’ observed behavior and development cycles must be accelerated to provide keep up. Our clients make changes daily - our platform allows them to identify opportunities and deploy improvements without having to write code.  The cycle from insight to implementation is extremely short.

The growth of ChatBots is driven by three undeniable megatrends.  

  1. The shift away from desktop to mobile platforms has shifted.  As we have the capability to use smartphones for everything that is normally done at a computer, we do. This makes every aspect of the day a moment to work, from waiting in line at the supermarket to waiting for your next meeting.
  2. The mobile application market is completely saturated. App Stores are overloaded with millions of apps, discovery is broken now and the app download rates per user are falling.
  3. More of our online time is being spent in messaging apps and the companies that operate those applications are making them more open and accessible.  

With APIs opening for all of the big messaging apps, such as Facebook, Kick, Slack, Skype, etc, there is a huge opportunity to capitalize on the emergence of conversational commerce. Companies that choose low-code development platforms to manage their ChatBots will be the winners in the messaging economy."


Learn more about Low Code Development Platforms

Interested in learning more about low-code development and what it can do for your organization? These reports and case studies should give you an idea of how low-code platforms are being used today

Forrester Research reports: 
The Forrester Wave™: Low-Code Development Platforms, Q2 2016
Vendor Landscape: The Fractured, Fertile Terrain Of Low-Code Application Platforms
Low-Code Platforms Deliver Customer-Facing Apps Fast, But Will They Scale Up?
New Development Platforms Emerge For Customer-Facing Applications
    
Case studies:
New Development Platforms Emerge For Customer-Facing Applications

Gartner Research reports:
Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Application Platform as a Service, Worldwide

2016 Cloud Platform’s Buyer’s Guide: Solutions Review Buyer's Guide 
Solutions Review comparison: Comparing the Cloud: Put the Top Ten PaaS Vendors Head-to-Head for a Full-Stack Comparison

Forrester study commissioned study on specific vendor (Quickbase): The Total Economic Impact™ of QuickBase 


Easily Manage Low-Code Platform Development Projects with Smartsheet

Empower your people to go above and beyond with a flexible platform designed to match the needs of your team — and adapt as those needs change. 

The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed. 

When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.

 

 

Discover why over 90% of Fortune 100 companies trust Smartsheet to get work done.

Try Smartsheet for Free Get a Free Smartsheet Demo