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Low-code goes mainstream to ease app dev woes

Enterprises are after low-code/no-code platforms to help with developer productivity, as they find themselves under increased pressure to produce apps with fewer skilled developers.

Low-code/no-code application development has gone mainstream as demand grows for enterprises to turn out increasingly more applications with not enough skilled developers.

A recent Forrester Research study showed that 23% of the 3,200 developers surveyed said their firms have adopted low-code development platforms, and another 22% said their organizations plan to adopt low-code platforms in the next year. That data was gathered in late 2018, so by the end of this year, those numbers should combine to be close to 50% of developers whose organizations have adopted low-code platforms, said John Rymer, an analyst at Forrester.

"That seems like mainstream to me," he said, adding that low-code/no-code comes up routinely with his clients nowadays. In fact, low-code development could possibly be as impactful on the computing industry as the creation of the internet or IBM's invention of the PC, he said.

The industry is on the cusp of a huge change to incorporate business people into the way software is built and delivered, Rymer said.

"If you believe that there are six million developers in the world and we believe there are probably a billion business people in the world, if you look ahead five years or so, we can see maybe 100 million people --business people -- engaged in producing software," he said. "'And I think that is the change we're all starting to witness."

Meanwhile, Forrester said there are eight key reasons for enterprises to adopt low-code platforms:

  • Support product or service innovation.
  • Empower departmental IT to deliver apps.
  • Empower employees outside of IT to deliver apps.
  • Make the app development processes more efficient.
  • Develop apps more quickly.
  • Reduce costs of app development.
  • Increase the number of people who develop applications.
  • Develop unique apps for specific business needs.

The top three types of apps built with low-code tools are complete customer-facing apps -- web or mobile, business process and workflow apps, and web or mobile front ends, Rymer said. Meanwhile, the top three departments using low-code are IT, customer service or call center, and digital business or e-commerce, he added.

Low-code landscape shaped by business users

Surging interest in low-code/no-code adoption comes not just to help increase developers' productivity, but also to empower enterprise business users.

A Gartner report on the low-code space, released in August 2019, predicted that by 2024, 75% of large enterprises will use at least four low-code development tools for both IT application development and citizen development, and over 65% of applications will be developed with low-code technology. Upwork, the web platform for matching freelance workers with jobs, recently identified low-code development skills as rapidly gaining in popularity, particularly for developers familiar with Salesforce's Lightning low-code tools to build web apps.

If you look ahead five years or so, we can see maybe 100 million people -- business people -- engaged in producing software.
John RymerAnalyst, Forrester Research

Low-code analyses from Gartner and Forrester in 2018 did not rank Microsoft as a leader, but the software giant shot up in the rankings with the latest release of its Power Platform and PowerApps low-code environment that broadly supports both citizen developers and professional developers. This helps bring the vast community of Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code developers into the fold, said Charles Lamanna, general manager of application platform at Microsoft.

Other low-code platform vendors have shifted focus to business users. A study commissioned by low-code platform vendor OutSystems showed results quite similar to the Gartner and Forrester analyses. Out of 3,300 developers surveyed, 41% of respondents said their organization already uses a low-code platform, and another 10% said they were about to start using one, according to the study.

Mendix now offers a part of their product that's aimed at business people as well. With the Mendix platform, eXp Realty, a Bellingham, Wash., cloud-based real estate brokerage, cut its onboarding process for new agents from 18 steps down to nine, said Steve Ledwith, the company's vice president of engineering.

Gartner's latest low-code report includes OutSystems and Salesforce Mendix, Microsoft and Appian. The most recent Forrester Wave report on the low-code space, in March 2019, saw the same four core leaders but swapped out Appian for Kony.

The rising popularity of low-code/no-code platforms also means the marketplace itself is active. "Low-code platform leaders are growing fast and the smaller companies are finding a niche," said Mike Hughes, principal platform evangelist at OutSystems.

Last year, Siemens acquired Mendix for $730 million. And just this week, Temenos, a Geneva, Switzerland-based banking software company, acquired Kony for $559 million plus another $21 million if they meet unspecified goals. Both Temenos and Siemens said they acquired the low-code platforms to speed up their own internal application development, as well as to advance and sell the platforms to customers.

"We wanted to shore up our banking software with Kony's low-code platform and particularly their own banking application built with their product," said Mark Gunning, global business solutions director at Temenos. Kony also will help advance Temenos' presence in the U.S., he added.

As enterprises rely more on these platforms to develop their applications, look for consolidation ahead in the low-code/no-code space. Gartner now tracks over 200-plus companies that claim to serve the low-code market. Acquisitions such as these are another strong indicator that the market is maturing.

Salvation Army recruits low-code

Like many not-for-profits, the Salvation Army was slow to move off of its old Lotus Notes platform. Yet, when they decided to move to Office 365 in 2016, there was no Power Platform or PowerApps, so the organization turned to low-code platform maker AgilePoint, based in Mountain View, Calif., said David Brown, director of applications at the Salvation Army USA West, in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. (Gartner ranks AgilePoint as a high-level niche player; the company doesn't appear on Forrester's rankings.)

The AgilePoint platform enabled the charitable organization to build more apps and be more responsive to the organization's demands for new applications. The Salvation Army started to build apps with AgilePoint in 2017 and put 10 new apps into production that year. In 2018, they delivered 20 apps, and the goal for 2019 is 30 new apps, Brown said. The Salvation Army also is considering a training program for citizen developers, Brown said.

"We built an app that replaced a paper process that cost us $10,000 a month," he said. "When I can invest in a new technology and in the first year save $120,000 using something that I am not spending anywhere that much for, that's a huge return on investment."

Low-code, no-code lines begin to blur

No-code typically means the platform is basic and requires no coding, while low-code platforms enable pro developers to go under the hood and hard-code portions if they choose to. However, the distinction between low-code and no-code is not absolute.

Jeffrey Hammond, ForresterJeffrey Hammond

"I don't think you are either low-code or you are no code," said Jeffrey Hammond, another Forrester analyst. "I think you might be less code or more code. I think the no-code vendors aspire to have you do less raw text entry."

As a developer, there are times when you can only visually model so much before it's just more efficient to drop into text and write something. It is the quickest, easiest way to express what you want to do.

"And if you're typing text, to me you're coding," Hammond said.

Michael Beckley, CTO of Appian, based in Tysons, Va., said many of Appian's developers would agree.

"A lot of our developers believe low-code exists to help developers write less code upfront," he said. "And when the platform stops [when finished execution of its instructions] they should just start writing code all over the place."

Next low-code hurdles are AI, serverless

The addition of artificial intelligence to the platforms to help developers build smart apps is one next hurdle for the low-code space. Another is to provide DevOps natively on the platforms, and that is already happening now with platforms from OutSystems and Mendix, among others.

However, there is a potential future connection point between the serverless and low-code spaces, Hammond said.

"They are looking to solve a similar problem, which is extracting developers from a lot of the lower-level grunt work so they can focus on building business logic," he said.

The serverless side relies on network infrastructure and managed services, not so much with tools. The low-code space does it with tools and frameworks, but not necessarily as part of an open, standards-based approach.

With some standardization in the serverless space around Kubernetes and CloudEvents, there could be some intersections between the tools and the low-code space and the high-scale infrastructure in the cloud-native space.

"If you have a common event model, you can start to build events and you can string them together and you can start to build business rules around them," Forrester's Hammond said. "You can go into the editors to write the business logic for them. To me, that's an extension of low-code -- and I think it can open up the floodgates to an intersection of these two different technologies."

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