A Brief History of Low-Code Development Platforms

Written By: Davin Wilfrid
February 10, 2020
5 min read

In 1982, technology visionary James Martin published a book called Application Development Without Programmers. At the time, the future seemed inevitable.

“The number of programmers available per computer is shrinking so fast that most computers in the future must be put to work at least in part without programmers,” he wrote.

The idea would catch on. If you worked in IT in the 1980s or 1990s, chances are someone pitched you a solution that promised to offload much of the demand for new applications to the users themselves. These technologies included so-called fourth-generation programming languages (4GL), computer-assisted software engineering (CASE) tools, and early rapid application development (RAD) tools.

These applications were the precursorto true citizen development platforms.

Why These Technologies Failed

  1. They promised more than they could deliver. IT managers felt burned by unrealistic expectations sold to them by consultants and vendors. While 4GL and visual programming technologies offered a glimpse of a better world for IT and the business, the tools themselves simply could not live up to the hype. Building applications that would scale was particularly difficult.
  2. The tools did not support best practices. Version control, testing, deployment, documentation, and other development best practices did not exist for most tools, and had to be performed manually.
  3. They amplified security risks. Empowering non-technical people to build these original stand-alone software apps (even with the assistance of new tools) exposed the organization to several risks — chief among them that most non-technical builders did not possess the skillset to create and deploy applications with appropriate security and governance.
  4. The internet swallowed everything. By the mid 2000s, a significant portion of software development was already focused on web applications, as more business sought to enable better worker productivity by delivering business applications via the cloud rather than on traditional server environments. This offset some of the need for traditional IT solutions for everyday problems.

It wasn’t that the idea was wrong. It’s that the timing was off, and the technology wasn't ready. But now it is.

Demand for technology solutions is at an all-time high. Backlogs are mountains and business is stalled. James Martin’s original prediction is still true.But what are the new solutions, and how are they different?

The New Breed of Low-Code

Enter the modern era. Forrester Research expects the market for low-code and no-code development platforms to grow from $3.8 billion in 2017 to $21.2 billion in 2022.* Forrester characterizes low-code platforms as those “products and/or cloud services for application development that employ visual, declarative techniques instead of programming."

So what’s changed? Why would these new platforms succeed where others have failed?

The answer is in the platform. Rather than offering an interface that simply obscures the actual code generating an application, the new generation of low-code platformsare self-contained (yet extensible) platforms that enable people to build within an environment that’s already hospitable to all the unseen components of the application. In fact, most modern low-code platforms are delivered via the web, meaning users don’t have to worry about any updates at all.

The cloud platform approach also empowers these tools to provide far more security and reliability than ever — making it much easier for organizations to deploy with confidence that they have the right controls in place to meet their security and compliance standards. If the platform itself offers high-level security and compliance controls, the path to deploying platform applicationssecurely is much shorter.

Finally, the user base for these platforms has matured significantly in the last decade with the world’s most successful companies utilizing low-code platforms to power their unique processes.This has given rise to best practices, a thriving ecosystem of partners and low-code builders, and a better understanding overall of the capabilities of each platform.

How to Choose a Low-Code Platform

Choosing the right platform is not easy, but the journey begins by answering a few key questions:

  1. Are you looking to create a culture of continuous innovation at the edge? If so, you should choose a platform that is known for secure, scalable and sustainable citizen development. Enabling business users at the edge of the business to create workflows for their unique processes and accelerating time to value.
  2. Are you simply trying to be faster? If your organization wants to simply accelerate the rate at which professional developers deliver applications to end users, you may want to consider a low-code platform aimed at application development and delivery. These platforms tend to require some coding but help speed app building by making it faster and easier to assemble and reuse components. If you are looking to burn down your backlog even more quickly, low-code platforms for citizen developers give you the option of turning over the bulk of the development work to the users themselves. In these scenarios, IT can maintain control over data and user management within the platform, and you can scale across your entire business.

If your organization chooses to prioritize speed of development with a v platform for business developers, be sure to find one that also offers robust data management, reporting and collaboration, and governance and security.

Only the Beginning

James Martin was ahead of his time. Not only has demand for technology solutions exploded since his prediction in 1982, but the web has empowered a new generation of platforms to meet the needs of the modern workforce.This workforce is continuing to grow and every CIO will need a low-code platform in their toolbox to compete.

Written By: Davin Wilfrid
Davin Wilfrid manages Content & Community at Quickbase. When he's not playing or watching baseball, he builds terrible ukuleles.