What is the future of low-code app development?

Experts see more enterprises embracing low-code to rapidly develop apps and empower nonprogrammers -- but there are plenty of reasons to keep using traditional development as well.

Enterprises increasingly use low-code development practices and tools to help make professional developers and business users more productive. In the near future, look for vendors, including major cloud providers, to expand low-code's capabilities. Experts predict low-code will improve how businesses not only develop applications but maintain IT overall.

The current state of low-code

Low-code development is a modular software development approach that selects and connects blocks of code to build an application, website or functionality. No-code development carries this paradigm even further with an entirely drag-and-drop process that requires essentially no coding knowledge.

Low-code's main benefits are that it accelerates design and delivery of applications versus traditional development, and it expands the app development pool to less-skilled developers or line-of-business staff. Enterprise developers use low-code to help with broader tasks such as replatforming apps and back-end integration. Meanwhile, business users are empowered to conduct more product experiments or fine-tune specific business processes.

About half of firms today use a low-code platform, according to John Bratincevic, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, citing recent Forrester surveys and data. These platforms are typically general-purpose but an early 2020 Forrester survey revealed the most frequent initiatives are:

  • business process/workflow applications;
  • web and/or mobile front ends; and
  • customer-facing applications via mobile and/or web.

Customization of components is a common aspect of many low-code use cases. For example, developers can start with a library of components for common functions such as create, retrieve, update and delete (CRUD) functions, operations, validations, file handling, email notifications, security and workflows. Then they can spend more time customizing this code at the edge. These components can also accelerate application modernization using primitives that help teams move to microservices or serverless apps.

Developers also can use prebuilt components for common applications in vertical industries such as insurance and financial services. These include business logic and common integrations for various use cases that speed development. Some business components target business cases such as service management, budget apps, employee onboarding, or environment health and safety. Others can help business users create event-driven workflows and business processes.

Low-code limitations and challenges

A big challenge for enterprises to adopt low-code development is that it may create one more layer of shadow IT, said Yugal Joshi, vice president at Everest Group, an IT advisory group. Enterprise-class low-code tools require effort and investment to ensure availability, security, scalability and reliability to meet service-level agreements.

Another concern is vendor lock-in. Some low-code tools may have specific ways to enable custom functions such as adding buttons or search filters. In other cases, users may find such customization is difficult or impossible. Meanwhile, cloud vendors are building low-code capabilities into their platforms to increase their stickiness to an enterprise customer base. The need to retrain developers and manage the complexity of governing applications across platforms further complicates any potential move from one low-code platform to another.

Low-code platforms and tools

Low-code development is often discussed synonymously with the tools and platforms that streamline certain coding steps or make them entirely invisible to users.

Low-code technology sales will grow from $9.1 billion in 2019 to $13.8 billion in 2021 and to $29 billion by 2025, according to Gartner projections. This growth is being driven by pandemic disruptions, hyperautomation, and the rise of more modular and resilient business strategies.

Gartner folds many related categories underneath the low-code umbrella, but the biggest area is low-code platforms that target sophisticated users, including professional developers and business analysts. (Gartner considers no-code development a subcategory of low-code, requiring only text-based interactions.) These low-code tools offer extensive customization options, and applications built with them typically follow traditional develop, test and deploy lifecycles, said Jason Wong, a vice president at Gartner.

Businesses also can use these tools to help create data models and schemas to improve application performance, UX and quality, although QA teams may be more familiar with traditional software testing and require training on low-code tools' specific testing primitives, Wong said.

Projected global revenues for low-code development technologies, 2019-2021.
Projected global revenues for low-code development technologies, in U.S. $M. 'No-code' is included as part of low-code application platforms. 'Other' low-code technology mainly refers to rapid application development tools.

4 factors that shape the future of low-code

Experts believe low-code use will continue to expand for enterprise-wide initiatives and specific projects in business units, and involve pro developers and even more line-of-business (LOB) workers. Improvements to low-code platform capabilities will also widen potential use cases, as well as help businesses move more work to the cloud.

Enterprises embrace and extend low-code. Low-code exemplifies an overall shift for enterprise productivity with the creation of various components for technical and business users. Improvements in the management and use of these components will shift around 55% to 65% of traditional app development to low-code in the next five years, said Ashish Varerkar, head of cloud practice at Larsen & Toubro Infotech, a digital transformation consultancy in India.

Some professional developers who prefer to manually code have pushed back against low-code development, but that is changing because they see how low-code is faster and eliminates drudgework, which creates direct value to them, Forrester's Bratincevic said.

More broadly, enterprises will use low-code to decentralize technology stacks and ecosystems, which will aid in reengineering how enterprises implement technology, said Gaurav Shekhar, program director of the graduate business analytics program at The University of Texas at Dallas. This will help to not only develop software faster, but also maintain IT at a lower cost.

Low-code development skills will become part of all business users' default skill sets, just like spreadsheets and presentations, Shekhar said. Employers want to use low-code tools to reduce the time spent training LOB personnel.

Low-code providers go big, and into the cloud. The top public cloud providers -- Amazon, Microsoft, and Google -- are making significant investments in low-code platforms. Varerkar sees Microsoft Power Platform and Salesforce Lightning emerging as the most preferred platforms, alongside continued adoption of traditional low-code vendors such as OutSystems, Mendix, Appian and others.

In the long run, many enterprise customers will gravitate toward large enterprise platform providers because their low-code tools will easily integrate into those vendors' cloud stacks, with better capabilities for UI customization, integration capabilities and reusable components, Varerkar said. Smaller vendors will continue to emphasize capabilities to migrate from monolithic apps to microservices, implement serverless architectures, modernize legacy systems and real-time monitoring.

Tools improve governance, AI capabilities. Currently low-code platforms' capabilities to automate intelligent governance at scale are immature, Bratincevic said. He sees room for improvement, and said such efforts are already underway..

Both Bratincevic and Gartner's Wong expect vendors to improve their low-code platforms' AI capabilities. Look for these improvements to help users automate some application design choices and testing processes, which will improve overall app quality. More broadly, low-code platforms will play a role to help democratize AI in app development, so enterprises can present straightforward AI services as a feature, Bratincevic said.

Low-code and traditional development have roles to play. Forrester predicted that 75% of development shops will use low-code platforms by the end of 2021, in the short term mostly to build tertiary apps rather than core ones, Bratincevic said. Only 18% of low-code shops said core apps are a primary use case for low-code, but it will become the de facto method for bespoke core apps over time, he added.

What's already happening is that low-code is becoming the standard for fast application development, Bratincevic said. Many enterprises have relied on it to help them adapt to COVID-19-related scenarios of the past year, such as contract tracing apps for employees. More advanced firms will make low-code and citizen development a major focus for the next several years, and the default option for most custom app development, although governance and cultural changes will continue to be hurdles.

Eventually, low-code tools could not just augment but replace tasks currently done by tools like Excel, and even provide a shared platform for collaborative development and continuous improvement between IT dev teams and businesspeople, Bratincevic said.

Nevertheless, traditional application development isn't going away. Enterprises will continue to justify its use for apps that require optimization and control, such as deployment to specific architectures or environments.

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