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Grow Your Business Technology

Low-Code App Makers Turn Small Business Owners Into Developers

Low-code app platforms
Credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Technology has revolutionized business efficiency. What may be considered routine tools today – Microsoft Excel, email, video conferencing – at one point changed the way we do business. Low-code development platforms could be the next technology to change business.

"From the get-go on this resource, our advice to clients has been you need to make one or more of these platforms part of your application delivery strategy," said John Rymer, an analyst with Forrester and leading low-code technology researcher. "You simply are not going to be able to accommodate all the demand if you rely on programming, it's just not sustainable."

Low-code development platforms allow users to design and build applications with little to no coding necessary. They usually have visual interfaces with drag-and-drop usability for simple app construction, and they are often used to improve internal processes. Rymer equated low-code applications to brokers or middle men – they hook up to various sources of data and allow business owners to eliminate redundant, time-consuming processes.

Till Freier is CEO of COMBASE USA, a software company that specializes in developing point of sales systems. Three months ago, he and his team implemented an order-fulfillment app they created using Google App Maker.

Instead of having to visit three separate data sources for order information, workers now use an internal application to process and fulfill orders. Information from various sources is at workers' fingertips.

They've since created two more apps using the Google App Maker. Keep in mind that Freier runs a company with several developers on staff who have the technical know-how to create an application. The issue was timing and cost.

Low code "allows you to step away a little bit from spreadsheets and customize your own workflow and applications that require a lot of development work," he said. "I think that is a huge benefit to businesses."

As with most business technology, low-code platforms started being used by big enterprise companies. For the past few years, enterprise companies have struck deals with low-code app platforms, like Mendix, to build hundreds of applications for their business. Rymer witnessed this wave back in 2014 and has since watched low-code platforms spread throughout enterprises and contribute to what is now being called the citizen developer. [Interested in app maker development solutions? Check out our best picks on our sister site, Business.com.]

Low-code development platforms prove useful for two groups: developers and non-developers. According to Rymer's research, developers use these tools to automate existing processes. Non-developers can take advantage of low-code platforms by building applications.

Non-developers add value, however, because of their position within the company – their presence within these processes gives them an inside look at how low-code apps could benefit the company. This makes them citizen developers.

"Low-cost, low-code platforms empower tech-savvy businesspeople," wrote Rymer in a 2017 Forrester report.

This is significant because this role could potentially be mimicked at the small business level. COMBASE is a prime example – the company isn't at the same scale as a major enterprise, but they developed low-code platforms and bettered their business.

Another reason for the rise of the citizen developer is the lack of traditional developers out there. Finding skilled workers who can write programs in multiple coding languages is challenging (and expensive) for enterprise businesses. So much so that Forrester estimates the economy will suffer a gap of 500,000 developers in by 2024. This anchors low-code platforms as an alternative to traditional application development, which is both time-consuming and costly, according to Rymer.

The emergence of the citizen developer means this technology can be used by the everyday small business owner to create applications. Citizen developers that exist within the departments or C-suites of big companies also exist in the small business world – they're individuals who recognize inefficiency and can solve company problems.

Low-code platforms empower these individuals to provide solutions to these problems through applications, according to Rymer's research. Rymer said the value of this technology won't stop with enterprises – he can see small businesses developing and implementing their own internal applications.

The first step which Freier spoke to is the natural progression into low-code development. COMBASE started by using Google's G-Suite. After trying to accomplish their efficiency goals through Google forms, the company stumbled upon App Maker.

Rymer says this progression will hook more small businesses, with companies like Google and Microsoft pushing their low-code development solution as part of their business tools packages. Microsoft's PowerApps platform allows business owners to quickly build applications without leaving the familiarity of Microsoft's interface. Building apps can feel almost like making a PowerPoint presentation.

The advantage of working in a large company's low-code platform is its connections to data. PowerApps, for example, offers more than 230 connections. Richard Riley, director of product marketing for PowerApps, said that citizen developers and business owners alike can find endless use cases for PowerApps.

While the big players have their own low-code platforms, still other solutions are emerging in the market. PullString, for example, is a low-code voice technology platform for creating Amazon Alexa Skills and Google Assistant Actions. Business owners can create voice skills using the platform, which provides a twist on existing low-code app builders. PullString is an example of another potential use case for low code development. Oren Jacob, CEO of PullString, said low-code platforms may always require some coding element to them, but that some aspects could end up being no code.

"What we do think will move out of code and therefore allow more folks without a coding background to participate in is all the dialog design and construction of the conventional part," he said.

The future and development of low-code solutions focuses on one thing: data. As these platforms develop alongside other technologies, low-code platform builders need to look to connect their platforms to even more data sources, according to Rymer. This means internet of things sensors, artificial intelligence and blockchain. All three of these technologies can provide even more hookups for low-code builders, allowing for more use cases and further development of the technology.

Despite the advantages of this kind of technology, it comes with some limitations from a development perspective. Rymer said these platforms are productive because they provide a framework for business owners to develop in. This can be limiting for some higher-level developers or designers looking to do unique production in low-code environments.

However, from a small business standpoint, low-code platforms provide an opportunity. As the citizen developer continues to become a contributor in this space, Rymer said small businesses could be prime candidates for using this kind of technology. The access to data and potential to simplify tasks and processes mean that apps produced in low-code environments can provide guidance that has never existed.

Matt D'Angelo

Matt D'Angelo is a Staff Writer based in New York City. After graduating from James Madison University with a degree in Journalism, Matt gained experience as a copy editor and writer for newspapers and various online publications. Matt joined the team in 2017 and covers technology for Business.com and Business News Daily. Follow him on Twitter or email him.