Museum:History of Low-code
Low-Code/No-Code platforms are all the rage in today’s application development sphere. They claim to have the power to speed and simplify the process of application development while also enabling non-developers to become the builders of the apps they need. While this promise may seem new and innovative, it actually has strong roots. Technological innovators have been trying for decades to automate the process of coding to cut down on the hours of effort required to build a functional application. Let’s take a moment to look back on where the idea of low-code began and how it’s evolved over the years. While the term ‘low-code’ was formally introduced by Gartner in 2016, the underlying concept of automated coding is not near as new. But even before Gartner, In 2014, Forrester coined the term “Low-code” to classify development platforms that focused on development simplicity and ease of use; probably Forrester coined the term, and Gartner helped them introduce it to the masses. And even before 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.
1970s and 80s: 4GL
Fourth Generation Programming Language (4GL) was the technology that spurred interest in automated coding. 4GL includes programming languages like ABAP, Unix Shell, SQL, Oracle Reports, and R, which are non-procedural specification languages that support database management, graphical user interface (GUI), web development, and more technologies we rely on today. James Martin in his already mentioned book argued that non-programmers could build applications using 4GL languages like RAMIS and FOCUS. 4GL opened up alternative ways of programming such as table-driven programming, report-generator programming, CASE tool outputs, and “XTalk” languages. In theory, many of these tools were codeless, however it would be difficult to argue that they enabled an application development process that could be executed by non-programmers.
1990s: Rapid Application Development
In the 1990s, the familiar term “rapid application development” (RAD) was popularized with tools like Visual Basic that allowed users to visually assemble desktop applications. The tools focused more on the adaptive process than on planning; the user could focus on the GUI and add business logic step-by-step. RAD was a response to the waterfall method, which was the standard in the 1980s. While RAD wasn’t necessarily intended to be an attempt at automated coding, it did bring the user into the process of application development. Users participated in the planning and design phases of development, and their input was used to make adjustments all the way to the end of a project. Of course, RAD had its weaknesses. It typically led to a lack of focus on non-functional requirements, it required the engagement of business users who had little time to commit to such projects, and the applications weren’t very scalable.
2000s: Mobile Apps
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. Model Driven Architecture (MDA) was introduced in 2001 to further ingratiate users into the application development process, but the biggest jump towards automated coding was mobile platforms. In 2007, Apple introduced their first mobile device, swiftly followed by Google Android. Soon, developers were using visual interfaces to develop small-scale apps that could run on these devices. Progressive web apps soon followed, touting a simple dev platform that didn’t require separate bundling or distribution. As with previous innovations in AppDev, mobile apps were also intended to make application development accessible to the layman. While significant progress has been made, it is still difficult to build anything more than a very simple, static mobile application without coding expertise or access to a developer.
2016: Low-Code Development Platforms
And, of course, 2016 was the year Gartner first introduced the idea of low-code development platforms (LCDP), another attempt to bring users into the development process, this time by having them participate in the actual building of applications. The goal of low-code platforms seems to be that users with little to no software development experience – also known as “citizen developers” – can create new applications that benefit the business. This appears to be the case with Microsoft Power Apps, which states in its documentation that it “ ‘democratizes’ the custom business app building experience by enabling users to build feature-rich, custom business apps without writing code.” So the user essentially becomes the developer as well. But as with automated coding predecessors, LDCPs have great promise. Unfortunately, they often bring with them unexpected complexities that can augment the cost and difficulty of building an application.
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."
- Tom Moore (October 7, 2021). "Low-Code AppDev: The History and Evolution of Automated Coding". Datavail.
- "The History of Low-Code Platforms: How Development Changed Forever". Kissflow. May 2, 2018.
- "A Brief History of Low-Code Development Platforms". Quickbase. February 10, 2020.