Is it possible to build a working business application in an hour? Low-code app development platforms like Appian Quick Apps and others are designed to do just that, but how well does the app work on desktop and mobile? How advanced are the features? Is there actually zero coding involved? Are these app builders geared more toward everyday business users or developers? What kinds of tasks are these apps suited for, be it basic collaboration and project management or more complicated use cases?
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How do you build an app without any coding, anyway? This new mode of app creation comes with a lot of questions, and PCMag put the idea to the test.
We took four low-code tools (Appian, Microsoft PowerApps, Salesforce Lightning, and Zoho Creator), put them in a room with four developers from our Ziff Davis Tech team for one hour, and watched them try to build a basic app and customize it—without writing a single line of code. Oh, and we filmed the whole thing, too.
A Little Background on "Low-Code"The term "low-code app development" didn't exist until a few years ago but the concept isn't a new one. Part of the value for businesses is in citizen development. There's long been a notion in enterprises and small to midsize businesses (SMBs) of the "power user" or "citizen developer": the business users taking it upon themselves to create their own apps, often dabbling in Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) programming in Excel.
The other side of the equation is traditional developers and IT, for which these low-code platforms are designed to accelerate software delivery by quickly building apps for specific business use cases. The term "low-code" itself comes from tech research and analysis firm Forrester Research. Analysts Clay Richardson and John Rymer coined the term in Forrester's 2014 report, "New Development Platforms Emerge For Customer-Facing Applications," and followed that up recently with two market reports, "The Forrester Wave: Low-Code Development Platforms, Q2 2016," and "Vendor Landscape: The Fractured, Fertile Terrain Of Low-Code Application Platforms."
Forrester approximates that vendors generated a minimum of $1.7 billion in revenue during 2015, and said in the report that many are growing their revenues in excess of 50 percent a year. The Wave report breaks down 42 vendors in the space, organized into five low-code categories: general-purpose, process, database, request-handling, and mobile-first, though Rymer told PCMag that the mobile-first category will likely disappear, becoming a given in all low-code platforms as the industry consolidates under general-purpose.
"A lot of people still think of these products as just tools; the latest turn of the screw in what we used to do in [IBM] Lotus Notes or [Microsoft] Access. These are not tools, they're platforms. If you're going to invest in them, you want to be able to create an application in as many scenarios as possible," said Rymer. "Mobile isn't a product, it's a feature. The general purpose category has coverage across mobile and web UI [user interface], tooling to help you manage projects, application lifecycle management [ALM], portfolio management, administrative tasks. These are very broad feature sets."
The Forrester report also addresses three key myths about low-code platforms. Rymer talked a bit about each one:
Myth #1: Low-code platforms are only for citizen developers, not pro developers.
"The foundation of this research was a collection of reference customers using these products. When we stepped back and thought about who these people were, they were all professional developers. We've since encountered a broader population of citizen devs, but I wouldn't put these platforms in front of a citizen dev without some training and tooling," said Rymer. "I can't think of a product that has very been successful in satisfying the needs of pro developers and end users with the same feature set."
Myth #2: Low-code platforms eliminate the need for any programming (low-code vs. "no-code").
"When we did the Wave on low-code platforms, one of the questions we asked is when you used these products, what were the functions that required you to code? The answer was 1: integration and 2: user interface," said Rymer. "Integration is hard. It's unpredictable. It's messy. The other areas where people do custom coding is mobile UI. If you want the app to go beyond the web application and do a custom layout, access servers on the device, or want pixel-perfect displays, low-code platforms usually don't provide templates for that. On mobile there's still a lot of work to do. We've got to get to native."
Myth #3: Low-code platforms mean small scale.
"For me, the really interesting thing about the landscape is when do we reach the point where acquisitions start to happen? We're not there yet, because the revenue isn't there except for Salesforce and ServiceNow, who are already big vendors, but Appian is over $100 million in revenue...would somebody buy them? Would somebody buy OutSystems or Mendix? We've also got to keep an eye on Microsoft's entrace into the field, because they could become a huge player overnight. Within the next 2-3 years, I think we'll get to the point where the Oracles of the world decide to acquire the leaders in revenue, rather than build. A $50 million acquisition of a low-code vendor is peanuts to Oracle," said Rymer.
PCMag's Testing MethodologyFor the purposes of our test, each developer used their respective low-code platforms to create a basic scheduling app. The goal at the end of the hour was to build an app that could add a new event (name, date/time, duration), invite users to the event, a save button to create the event, and the ability to view a list of events in calendar view or chronological list. If the devs accomplished all that, they could experiment with more UI customization or bonus features like notifications.
From a feature perspective, Rymer said low-code platforms replace coding largely with declarative development: drag-and-drop visual interfaces, object mapping and process modeling, form builders, WYSIWYG editors, etc. In Appian, Microsoft PowerApps, Salesforce Lightning, and Zoho Creator, the developers used these types of features to build their apps. The other big difference between the platforms is that Appian is a low-code and business process management (BPM)-specific vendor, whereas Microsoft, Salesforce, and Zoho offer their tools as part of larger ecosystems, with Zoho also offering products like Zoho CRM, Zoho Projects, and Zoho Books.
Why did we use real developers for this test instead of run-of-the-mill business users? A few reasons. As Rymer explained, developers and IT are using these platforms in enterprises with far more regularity than citizen developers. We wanted to test whether, for the purposes of a quick ticket or light feature request sent to the IT department, building an app quickly using a low-code platform would be easier than a traditional development process.
Developers are also far more knowledgeable about what it takes to create a working app in the first place. In the videos below, the devs were able to clearly articulate what the platforms could and couldn't do, what their limitations were, and whether a tool like this is actually helpful everyday business settings.
Will we run a test like this with citizen developers as well, or pull unsuspecting business users walking down the hallway into the labs, sit them down, and make them create a low-code app? Possibly. We'd love to hear your feedback. Leave a comment on the story, drop us a Facebook comment or tweet, and let us know whether you want to learn more about low-code through this kind of content.
How the Tools Stack UpOnce the clock started and the app creation began, the developers found strengths and weaknesses with each low-code platform, but by the end of the hour each one had built an app. How well did the platforms work, and what did the finished products look like? Watch the videos below and find out.
The Bottom LineAll four platforms created a working (or at least semi-working) scheduling app, but the low-code tools that performed the best overall were Appian and Zoho Creator. For Appian, the combination of Appian Quick Apps and the full-fledged Appian Designer make for a potent duo in creating an app quickly and then layering customization and added features on top. Quick Apps is primarily form-based, and the full Designer lets you map out all the data and objects in the app with the drag-and-drop Appian Process Modeler. It's the most mature, easiest to use low-code platform we tested for creating BPM apps.
Zoho Creator performed admirably as well. Our developer was able to create the basic scheduling app pretty easily within about 10 minutes, and then spent the rest of the hour attempting to customize the app. Echoing Rymer's main limitations with low-code platforms, the development did run into roadblocks when it came to customizing the UI and optimizing the layout for mobile. Zoho Creator is the "highest-code" platform of the bunch in terms of additional scripting on top of the drag-and-drop development and form building, but packs enough great low-code functionality out-of-the-box to build a solid app in an hour.
Salesforce Lightning also performed very well, building a good looking app with a relatively pain-free development experience. The biggest criticism our developer had with Salesforce Lightning is the proprietary nature of its ecosystem around the Salesforce App Cloud and its customer relationship management (CRM) software. In his experience, the nature of developing an app in Lightning relies so heavily on knowledge of Salesforce's APEX programming language when it came to customization, he recommended the product is best suited to developers and users with deep Salesforce expertise. Salesforce does cover its basis on this point, though, offering an in-depth training website called Salesforce Trailhead with a wide array of courses to get you up to speed.
Then we come to Microsoft PowerApps, Redmond's free tool and the newest low-code platform on the block (it still currently sports a beta tag), and the one with the most maturing to do. The PowerApps UI is the sleekest of the tools we tested, and the platform comes with step-by-step instructions to create and app and a variety of mobile layouts.
Our developer found the basic form UI straightforward and built the app template in 5-10 minutes, but discovered the program only works with a Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 machine, and had trouble pulling in data, even when using Microsoft OneDrive. Forrester's Rymer wasn't suprised that PowerApps came up short in initial testing, but sees big things on the horizon once Microsoft's tool matures, especially if they combine low-code with business intelligence (BI).
"Is PowerApps for end users like SharePoint Designer was supposed to be, or is it a developer tool? This is one of the big questions they've got to answer," said Rymer. "Also, I think Microsoft is eventually going to put PowerApps and Microsoft Power BI together, with the idea that they would be a twin pair of tools people would use in tandem. We'll pay close attention to that when PowerApps goes GA [generally available], because that could be significant."