The rise of India's no-code developers - Mint

If the people of Gwalior are able to easily book and access such services, there would be demand for his app. There was a minor glitch, however. Kamal, who runs a tuition centre in the city, didn't know how to code and was reluctant to spend on a developer as well.

"I'm not a computer engineer, but I know a few things about computers. I need to know some things for the coaching institute, like taking online classes etc," he said.

In a journey typical of many tech enthusiasts, Kamal took to the Internet to find a solution. And he found one, on YouTube, in the form of a platform called Appy Pie. He paid 1,499 to join the platform. Three days later, he was ready to publish a fully functional, albeit rudimentary, app on the Google Play Store, which services phones operating on the Android operating system. The app—Sab Kuchh Milega—is a simple platform that allows service providers to list their contact details, which users can then use to call them. It has services ranging from calling an auto-rickshaw to electricians, plumbers, water tanker services, water purifier repairs and more. Kamal said he's working to add more services, and integrate new features, such as payments.

"There's no need for coding here. You just follow the instructions and keep adding (the modules) you need," said Kamal, who spent two to three nights and finished building his app. The customer support team at Appy Pie helped him list the app on the Play Store. Between Appy Pie's membership fees and Google's Play Store publishing fees, he spent about 5,000 to get his app up and running.

Rise of no-code and low-code

Ed-tech platforms might tell you that your child needs to learn coding to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but the tech industry itself is working to make coding obsolete. Appy Pie is just one amongst a plethora of new platforms that fall in the "low code" and "no code" industry. The trend is not new. But the extent of capabilities and sophistication of the tools are.

Content platforms such as Wordpress have long helped writers publish online without knowing any HTML coding. Web development platforms with WYSWYG (what you see is what you get) editors, such as Wix, came next, allowing anyone to build and publish a full-fledged website. Platforms specific to use cases, such as Shopify, which allows anyone to set up an e-commerce platform, have also become big. And now, platforms that allow anyone to develop, publish and manage apps with no knowledge of computer code are gaining traction. The evolution of this space and the forces it will unleash will have consequences for web developers, tech companies and indeed anyone who wishes to publish an app.

Appy Pie, for instance, is a no-code platform, which means you require no coding knowledge to build an app. A low-code platform is slightly more complex and companies running such platforms usually offer additional developer support to take care of the technical aspects of app building. But both have one central goal—push the complexities of coding under the hood and make app development as intuitive as every-day computer functions such as drag and drop, copy-paste. Do you want to choose the background of your app? Just pick the colour you like from a palette. No need to meddle with cascading style sheets (CSS). Do you need a payment mechanism set up? Just drag and drop a module, and so on.

Numerous such platforms have now come up. These include Bubble, Webflow, Glide, Makerpad, and Thunkable, among several others.

"When someone writes code, they have to understand the syntax of the (programming) language, how to use various principles of that language, and so on," said Gautam Nimmagadda, Founder and CEO of Quixy, another home-grown no-code platform. "In a no-code platform, if you know the output you desire, and the process that you want to be followed for that output, you'll be able to build (the app) through a process of drag-and-drop and selections," he added.

These platforms represent the latest in the evolution of one of the earliest breakthroughs in the world of computing—the graphical user interface (GUI), an innovation that enabled the personal computing revolution. The buttons, links, icons, etc. that we click or tap on are all examples of a GUI. Whenever we click on something, a complex program is executed under the hood. The GUI just eliminates the need for the user to write those codes or commands.

"Our (platform's) essence was primarily to add these different building blocks, which a person can actually drag-and-drop and combine," said Abhinav Girdhar, founder of Appy Pie. "In our game, when a person is able to create an app and installs it on their phone, that's the ah-ha moment for them," he added. In February 2021, Gartner projected a 22.6% growth for the low-code development technologies market over 2020, rising to $13.8 billion by the end of the year.

"Low-code application development is not new, but a confluence of digital disruptions, hyper automation and the 'composable business' has led to an influx of tools and rising demand," wrote Fabrizio Biscotti, research vice president at market research firm Gartner, in the February 2021 report. The rise of the trend has also been helped along by the pandemic and the need for businesses to shift to remote operations as well. For instance, many restaurants seeking to avoid the hefty fees that delivery platforms such as Zomato and Swiggy charge, want to build their own platforms. In April this year, Girdhar was seeing $2 million worth of transactions on Appy Pie's restaurant platform, he says.

Girdhar says Appy Pie grew by about 85% in terms of revenue last year, and expects to grow by another 60% this year. Small and medium-sized entrepreneurs account for 90% of its customers. Gartner's report predicted that half of all new low-code clients will come from business buyers that are outside the IT function by end-2025.

"The economic consequences of the covid-19 pandemic have validated the low-code value proposition," said Biscotti. "Low-code capabilities that support remote work functions, such as digital forms and workflow automation, will be offered with more elastic pricing since they will be required to keep the lights running," he added.

But these platforms have their limitations too. No one platform can fulfil every user's requirement. And for sophisticated app development and refined user experience, there is still no replacement for proprietary code. But the speed at which the capabilities of such platforms are evolving is what makes the space worth watching. "Every no-code platform in the world is evolving, and at a rapid pace, because of the kind of demand we're seeing. Not every feature that is desired is possible on no-code platform(s), so the idea everyone has is to solve most of the problems businesses have," said Quixy's Nimmagadda.

Integration with other services is a big part of solving for functionality. Girdhar said his platform is already integrating tools built by firms such as Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and Salesforce. These allow developers to integrate features and services that no-code platforms can't necessarily provide on their own.

Further, platforms have their own development queues as well, and keep adding features that their customers are asking for. The idea is to focus on abstracting as much of the coding from the app development process as they can. Quixy for instance, is focused on B2B use cases, while Appy Pie's Girdhar said his platform is driven by small and medium sized entrepreneurs.

But being driven by small businesses doesn't mean big ones don't see value in such platforms either. A large US-based footwear firm used Appy Pie to create a marathon app for its employees, while the National Health Services (NHS) in the United Kingdom has also used the platform for internal purposes, Girdhar said.

Low-code platforms

While individuals may depend on no-code platforms to provide for the lack of coding skills, businesses don't have that problem. Businesses therefore depend more on low-code platforms, which still require a little bit of technical knowledge. Having low-code platforms allows them to reduce cost and decrease time to market.

"We want a solution which is fast to market, fast to deliver value and has easy integration. If we developed these solutions by ourselves since we have the tech capabilities, it will take us a lot of time before we see the end goals," said Kumar Digvijay Singh, vice president, technology, at Innoviti Payments Solutions. "That is where these (low-code) platforms come into the picture. They have great UX/UI readily available, which the teams can use, and with a little modification they can fit in with our existing systems," he added.

Innoviti Payments Solutions provides payments solutions to merchants. Its clients include Reliance Retail, Titan, INOX, Indigo, Walmart and more. On June 15, the company said its low-code solutions will be able to onboard 100,000 local mobile dealers in the next three months, which would give it over 50% market share in that segment.

Innoviti wanted to build systems like zero-cost EMI, buy-now-pay-later and more into the offline payment terminals that its solutions power. Through traditional means, it would take the company two weeks to a month to configure them into all the payment terminals that use its solutions. A low-code platform achieved the same in two to three days, said Singh.

On May 26, Microsoft said it had used one of the most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) programs available today to create a low-code programming tool for its customers.

The product, which is called Power App Ideas, was built using the General Pre-Trained Transformer (GPT-3) AI model developed by research company OpenAI. It allows users to simply write down what they want to do into a text box, with the AI suggesting the commands they would need for it.

Deepak Pargaonkar, vice president, solution engineering at Salesforce, said that people aren't looking for complex development cycles anymore. He said that building low-code platforms is a natural progression for what tech companies have been doing so far.

Salesforce, a leader in customer relationship management (CRM) tools, also added low-code development tools to its next generation platform.

Templated experience

The growth of low-code and no-code platforms is also fuelled by two distinct trends in software development—one on the front-end and the other at the back-end. On the front end, platforms in certain categories tend to mimic each others' architecture and functionalities. Food delivery apps, e-commerce apps, streaming apps and news apps all have a degree of sameness. This makes it easy to build templates for these categories. On the back-end, the rise of code repositories such as Github has meant that a lot of software development for a while has involved borrowing standard code blocks. Much of the work of a software developer is to integrate blocks of code written by others into a framework that suits the need of the present application.

Does this mean software developers will soon be obsolete? That's a complex question. People don't need engineers to develop apps for them anymore, but Salesforce's Pargaonkar pointed out that businesses will still need to build the technology behind these low-code and no-code platforms. Just like companies hire employees who specialize in Salesforce's platform and SAP's Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, they might hire employees who specialize in specific low-code platforms.

But any innovation that goes beyond the bounds of established norms will still require human intervention and can't really be automated. Advanced technologies such as blockchain, AI and more will require talented engineers to come up with true innovation, but for everyone else, there's a platform. You may be able to build your own Facebook, but you will never be able to replicate its powerful AI algorithms using low-code tools.

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