A Brief History of Low-code Development Platforms

Jan 17, 2018
9 Min Read
A brief history of low-code development platforms

A brief history of low-code development platforms


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.

Ultimately these technologies failed to disrupt traditional application development for several reasons, including:

  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 apps 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 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. Isn’t that always the way?

In fact, 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 and No-code Platforms

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 app, the new generation of low-code tools are self-contained (yet extensible) platforms that enable people to build within an environment that’s already hospitable to all the unseen components of the app. That eliminates the need to update the platforms or apps due to changes in the code base or infrastructure. 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 apps securely is much shorter.

Finally, the user base for these platforms has matured in the past 5-10 years. This has given rise to best practices, a thriving ecosystem of partners and app builders, and a better understanding overall of the capabilities of each platform.

A Split in the Market

Adding some complexity is the split in the low-code market between two types of platform: Those aimed at helping developers be more productive, and those aimed at providing non-developers a solution to solve their own problems.

Strictly speaking, true low-code platforms focus on elevating the productivity of existing IT development resources by providing a less complex, faster, and more agile way to build. They offer a middle road that lies somewhere between traditional and no-code development. The target use case for this type of app building is one requires some low-level coding to configure such things as integrations with external apps, transaction processing, business process management, or even a customer portal.

At the other end of the spectrum are purely no-code platforms that automatically generate code with, for example, the click of a button or a simple “if/then” statement. That means virtually anyone can use them to easily build, deploy, and update “get work done” apps for themselves and their teams—whether it’s simplifying project management for Marketing, streamlining report generation for Sales, or automating employee onboarding for HR.

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. What problem are we trying to solve? 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 & delivery. These platforms tend to require some code 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 business 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, but can be as active as they’d like in the app-building process.
  2. Is our priority speed or stability? Traditional IT development offers the most control over your final solution, but delivery is not quick. Low-code platforms for AD&D professionals offer a balance of speed and stability, but limit participation from the business. Low-code platforms for business developers offer lightning-fast development, but may not support a massively scalable mission critical application.

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


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.

Want to learn more about the low-code landscape? Watch our webinar: “Gaining Control over Shadow IT” to learn how low-code solutions can help organizations solve one of the thorniest problems they face.
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