Alphabet is entering the low-code development arena. The company has announced an early adopter program for App Maker, a new tool within subsidiary Google's cloud-based G Suite productivity platform for creating custom applications by using a combination of drag-and-drop widgets, form builders and templates, and traditional coding.
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G Suite (formerly known as Google Apps) is a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offering that incorporates all of Google's productivity tools—from Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides to Gmail, Hangouts, Google Drive, and a host of other apps. In addition to the App Maker beta available today as an Early Adopter Program for G Suite Business customers, Alphabet also announced seven new app partners in its "Recommended for G Suite" program.
App Maker is built on G Suite's cloud infrastructure and ties in Google Analytics (GA) to track app data with built-in application performance management (APM) metrics. The tool includes a two-part development process: the drag-and-drop and template-based app builder followed by a full-fledged, integrated development environment (IDE).
"App Maker lets you build line-of-business apps fast," said Ajay Surie, Product Manager for App Maker. "It comes with a drag-and-drop UI editor with samples and templates, and then you can dive into a full code editor to customize. We wanted the product to help developers focus on building the applications and not worry about infrastructure; with App Maker, you can deploy custom apps for exactly what you need them to do, in a single click."
As with similar tools from Microsoft and Salesforce, App Maker is designed to make enterprise app development easier. App Maker lets IT departments and citizen developers build native apps that feed into specific business workflows. Need an app to help your team collaborate on a particular project? Use a low-code app builder to create the basic app framework in minutes and then customize it afterward with coding.
Hands-On With App Maker
The app creation process itself follows the same basic steps as other low-code tools. During a demo, Surie walked us through building an example human resources (HR) app for tracking internal courses.
The user starts by giving the app a name and deciding where its data will be stored (either in Google's Cloud SQL database or in a new storage format called Google Drive Tables). Then, Surie began using the form builder to add a table and fields for different courses, and the drag-and-drop editor to pull in widgets from the library, such as a Google Maps widget to show course locations in real time.
All of this sounds more like coding than "low-code" development, but most tools include a balance of both. Elissa Murphy, Vice President of Engineering for Google Cloud, said the idea is to execute the simple things quickly while giving IT the power to customize with more granular control when needed.
"From a strategy standpoint, we're targeting enterprise developers first as our early adopters," said Murphy. "At the same time, we're building a lot of citizen developer functionality. You'll see more from us, particularly as it relates to teams. If you want to create something like a team roster or an app for your team, App Maker can be used on that kind of smaller scale, with the IT admins still maintaining control over data and compliance."
App Maker is still in its infancy. Surie and Murphy said Google is working on adding more functionality, including mobile UI previews, and gathering beta feedback from launch partners such as accounting firm PwC and others. They said App Maker will likely see general availability in early to mid 2017.
Expanding G Suite's App Ecosystem
App Maker is one pillar of Google's strategy to build out a greater app ecosystem and business workflows around G Suite. Another is the "Recommended for G Suite" program to integrate popular apps across specific business use cases such as collaboration, project management, and Voice-over-IP (VoIP).
Recommended for G Suite launched in 2015, with eight partners including RingCentral and Okta Identity Management. Today, Alphabet announced seven new partner integrations that Murphy described as filling in more gaps for businesses in creating and end-to-end workflow within G Suite.
The bigger picture here is whether Google will take a cue from the Salesforce AppExchange and ultimately make App Maker-created apps available in the G Suite Marketplace alongside partner integrations. That level of native app integration within G Suite is a ways off, but Murphy said Google has discussed the option of making apps built with App Maker freely available in the marketplace or as templates within App Builder.
Fitting Into the Low-Code Landscape
The timing of Google's low-code announcement isn't an accident. Last month, Microsoft announced general availability of its PowerApps low-code platform and Microsoft Flow, its automated workflow tool. Similarly to how Google's low-code tooling is integrated throughout the G Suite app ecosystem, Microsoft has integrated PowerApps into its own suite of cloud-based services including Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Power BI.
Salesforce is the other big mainstream tech player in the low-code space, and one of the leaders according to the most recent Forrester Wave Report on low-code development platforms. Salesforce structures its Lightning App Builder and Lightning Components development tools the same way, building them directly into its cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing clouds. Apps built using Lightning can be listed directly on the Salesforce AppExchange, a path Google is beginning to follow with "Recommended for G Suite."
Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce are baking low-code development tools into their cloud-based business and productivity platforms, but the low-code space also has plenty of incumbent and up-and-coming companies sporting mature offerings. Forrester's other leaders in the low-code space include Appian, Mendix, and OutSystems, all of which offer powerful low-code enterprise app development tools.
There are also plenty of challengers close behind. Companies like AgilePoint, K2, ServiceNow, and QuickBase all have business-focused low-code and workflow platforms of their own. These companies have been around longer and many have significant enterprise customer bases on top of more mature technology than Google and Microsoft's newly minted low-code tools. G Suite is on the right track with App Maker, but the platform is a long way from the more mature low-code ecosystem and app marketplaces of Salesforce and Appian.
In the long run, we may begin to see some mergers and acquisitions within the smaller low-code players. As Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce's native tools gain more traction, other tech giants may want to buy their way into the action. For now, the low-code space is just beginning to really heat up.