Public clouds and big technologies target low-code capabilities

Great players join the low-code game, offering platforms to help developers and hobbyists create apps for anything imaginable.

I’ve been using low-code, code-free platforms for nearly two decades to create internal workflow applications and quickly develop customer experiences. I’ve always had development teams working on Java, .NET or PHP applications built on SQL and NoSQL databases, but the demand from application companies far exceeded what we could develop. Low-code and code-free platforms offered an alternative when the commercial requirements matched the platform’s capabilities.

I recently shared seven low-code platforms that developers should know and what IT managers can learn from low-code platform CTOs. Many of these platforms have been around for more than a decade and some support tens of thousands of business applications. Over time, these platforms have improved capabilities, developer experience, hosting options, enterprise security, devops tools, application integrations and other skills that enable rapid development and easy maintenance of functionally rich applications.

So when public clouds and big tech companies became more interested in low-code platforms, I was skeptical. First, public clouds target development and engineering teams that want to code applications, automate CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous deployment) pipelines, and implement infrastructure as code. Developing products for citizen developers and others who wish to develop with a low code requires different experiences, tools and features.

Second, autonomous low-code platforms have evolved through multiple computer paradigms; some go back to the client-server era. I had doubts that newcomers would offer corresponding capabilities as well as strategies and motivations to rethink to remain relevant.

I found a mix of different developer experiences and advanced public cloud capabilities and large technology companies. In some cases, low-code platforms are unfortunately behind stand-alone platforms. In other cases, they demonstrate how low-code can enable machine learning, chatbots, voice interfaces, spatial research, etc.

Power Apps leads with apps, integration and machine learning

Microsoft Power Apps and Power Automate (formerly Microsoft Flow) became available in October 2016 and new versions are released weekly. Meanwhile, Power Apps has evolved into a rich low-code application development environment to create forms and workflows that connect to multiple data sources. Power Automate now has more than 400 connectors that developers can use to move data in and out of applications and a separate robotic process automation skill.

What sets Power Apps apart is AI Builder, a set of low-code features that allow developers to connect data to natural language processing, image processing and machine learning. You can train patterns to categorize and identify features in text, extract information from forms, identify objects in images, or run predictive patterns.

The latest offering, Power Virtual Agents, a low-code chatbot platform, became available in late 2019. Combining the creation of a low-code application with an integrated chatbot and integrating the workflow with other SaaS solutions can be very powerful. Some examples of tutorials include chatbots that help users submit project ideas, answer questions during the COVID crisis, or perform simple functions such as today’s weather.

Apple, Google and Oracle’s continued investment in low-code capabilities

Apple and Google have low-code platforms under independently managed subsidiaries. Apple created FileMaker in 1986 and in 2019 they renamed the company to its original name, Claris. The low-code platform is now called Claris FileMaker, and they added Claris Connect, an integration platform, by acquiring Stamplay in 2019.

FileMaker is its 19th major release and Claris has recently launched new add-ons, including calendars, Kanban paintings and photo galleries. FileMaker can now integrate with machine learning models and ask Siri to answer questions in FileMaker apps. The platform was recently used by a hospital to monitor and report on patient progress and care and by schools to overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 back-to-school year.

Meanwhile, Google entered the low-code scene by acquiring AppSheet in early 2020. I spoke with Amit Zavery, Vice President/General Manager and Head of Platform at Google Cloud, About AppSheet’s Growth and Emerging Capabilities. “Over the past nine months, we’ve also started to see many end-user apps created above AppSheet – initially with the idea that you can pretty much create a departmental application, but people want to automate approval processes, integrate video conferus, inspect documents and connect to APIs.”

AppSheet offers many options you’ll find on other low-code platforms, including integrations, forms and views, but its advanced features illustrate Google’s plans. For example, the integration of G-Suite and AppSheet can be used to develop smart workflows, while developers can enable the connection to their APIs using Apigee as a data source.

Some interesting AppSheet applications include applying a medical student who organizes the associated medical conditions and concepts, applying a housing association that helps manage back-end operations, and applying an industrial services company that improves the efficiency of fieldwork. There are also examples of applications to help reduce risks in the workplace during COVID-19 and others developed for specific industries, including non-profit organizations and manufacturing.

Oracle is a long-time supporter of low-code development. I reviewed Oracle Application Express (APEX), whose history goes back to an acquisition made in 2006. APEX has more than 50,000 customers and developers generate more than 3,000 applications a day. APEX allows data-based applications without code. As Michael Hichwa, SVP Software Development at Oracle, says, “APEX uses the power of SQL in a business context.”

A remarkable feature uses the Oracle database to manage exposed location data via an application developed by APEX. An example is this application to optimize grocery delivery routes during COVID. The community site has more than 30 COVID-19-related applications.

Amazon, Salesforce, SAP, IBM and Alibaba increase low-code capabilities

The history of low-code doesn’t end there, as other public clouds and technology giants add features and low-code platforms.

  • Amazon launched Honeycode in June 2020, a “very lightweight tool” designed to enable citizen developers to create web and mobile applications.
  • Salesforce has a long history of providing development tools and its latest additions include Salesforce Lightning and the incorporation of the MuleSoft API integration capabilities.
  • SAP has partnered with low-code platform provider Mendix to expand the S/4HANA feature and integrate it into machine learning, artificial intelligence, IoT (Internet of Things) and other technologies.
  • IBM offers several low-code offerings on IBM Cloud, including a partnership with Mendix and the June 2020 version of IBM Cloud Pak for Automation with low-code machine learning integration for operational decisions.
  • Alibaba launched Yida Plus in 2019, a low-code development platform used in retail, hospitality, manufacturing, healthcare, energy and education.

Software and application development is strategic for organizations that invest in customer experience and employee productivity and want to become data-driven. Automation, integration and experience development tasks are becoming easier as more and more public cloud and technology companies offer low-code and citizen development capabilities.

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