Low-code is a software development approach that enables the delivery of applications faster and with minimal hand-coding. Low-code platforms are a collection of tools that enable the visual development of applications through modeling and a graphical interface. Low-code enables developers to skip hand-coding, speeding up the process of getting an application to production.

TL;DR Low-code can help accelerate projects, but it isn’t enough for serious app development. Learn why.  

According to Gartner, low-code will be responsible for more than 65% of application development activity by 2024 and the pressure to deliver digital solutions to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this adoption. To comprehend the increasing popularity of this development approach, it’s important to understand the concept of low-code, the composition of low-code platforms, and what problems low-code solves.

Example of low-code

What Is a Low-Code Platform?

A low-code platform is a family of tools that enables the development and delivery of complete applications visually. A drag-and-drop interface is at the core of low-code platforms. Rather than writing thousands of lines of complex code and syntax, you can use low-code to build complete applications with modern user interfaces, integrations, data and logic quickly and visually. Applications are delivered faster and with minimal hand-coding. You can learn more about the benefits of low-code in this article.

Here’s what a typical low-code development platform looks like:

  • A visual IDE: An environment for visually defining the UIs, workflows, and data models of your application and, where necessary, adding hand-written code.
  • Connectors to various back-ends or services: Automatically handles data structures, storage, and retrieval.
  • Application lifecycle manager: Automated tools for building, debugging, deploying, and maintaining the application in test, staging, and production.

Beyond those basics, no two low-code tools are exactly alike. Some are quite limited and more akin to a visual database front-end, like FoxPro in the 90s. Some focus on niche business needs, like case management. Others have adopted the low-code term to describe a purpose-built tool that has little to do with actual application development. No-code tools are also in the mix, although they cater more to business users and citizen developers. 

What Problem Does Low-Code Solve?

The pressure on IT organizations to deliver innovative solutions keeps magnifying. However, only a small group of top-tier companies have the financial and human resources to meet the market demand for speed with traditional development. Most companies are buried under enormous backlogs, struggling to hire sufficiently qualified staff, and they are continuously asked to do more with less. In addition, if there’s one thing the pandemic taught us it’s that the agility to adapt to new and unpredictable demands is crucial for business survival.

Because low-code dramatically reduces the complexity of software development, companies of any size that adopt this approach have the power to increase developer productivity and speed. It elevates the value of developers, enabling agile teams to draw on their understanding of how to create and maintain high-quality web and mobile applications while flexing their wings by trying new technology. With low-code, a UI/UX designer can do front-end development and a back-end developer can try prototyping a consumer app.

Put more simply, low-code is a way for developers to get more done. With low-code, they can spend more time creating and building and less time on repetitive work. Sure, it’s fun to learn the latest faddish JavaScript framework or play with a cutting-edge NoSQL data store, but while you’re spending time debugging unfamiliar code, your competitor has an MVP in front of customers.

What Is Low-Code Like to Work With?

Building software with low-code is the same as building software any other way. Unless you’re writing everything from scratch in machine code—and, no, assembly language doesn’t count—then you’re already taking shortcuts built on the work of others.

Rather than hand-coding yet another user management system, dealing with the idiosyncrasies of the latest programming framework, or writing 10 tests before a single line of your app’s code, you get straight to creating something new and valuable. Why start new when these problems have already been solved and the patterns are well understood?

Let’s compare creating an application using a common web framework to creating it using low-code.

The Traditional Application Development Process

Whether you’re working with .NET MVC, Spring Boot, or Ruby on Rails, you (and your team) go through roughly the same steps:

 Traditional Application Development Process vs Low-Code Development
Traditional Application Development Process

The Low-Code Development Process

With low-code it would look more like this

Low-Code Development Process
Low-Code Development Process

Seven steps instead of sixteen.

Most of the time spent hand-writing code in web and mobile apps is pretty much wheel spinning. Why should we tread the same path each time we start a new project if we don’t have to? Low-code lets us create applications visually using battle-tested fundamentals. Our focus becomes delivering something valuable to the world.

The Limitations of Low-Code

Although low-code makes it possible to create a working application fast, many low-code platforms come with a tradeoff. When it’s time to scale, integrate with existing systems, or perform under extreme conditions like a mobile banking app on Black Friday, the application could buckle under the weight of functional and nonfunctional requirements. If an application built with low-code needs updating or if the underlying technology needs changing, good luck.

The reality of low-code is that most low-code platforms are ad hoc, requiring a lot of work that should be automated. They have steep learning curves and a protracted time to value. Not only do they not make allowances for the fact that applications need to morph over time, but they also do not acknowledge that technology is also fluid. Just look at what has happened in tech in the last 10 years—serverless computing, microservices, Kubernetes, and the list goes on.

That’s why, to address the pressure to build and update enterprise and consumer applications at top speed, you need an approach that is more than low-code. Yes, it can include low-code, but it should also automate dependency impact analysis and debugging, package mobile apps for the app stores in one click, and automatically adjust to allow for new technology. It should continuously check for hundreds of typical change points and remove the guesswork and repetition from development and delivery. And, it should automate governance of large application portfolios and refactoring.

At the end of the day, it’s not how you accomplish something, it’s whether or not you deliver the result. That’s why a modern application platform can do a better job than low-code at helping organizations solve their most complex software challenges.

What Is a Modern Application Platform?

An example of a modern application platform is OutSystems. It provides everything needed to create modern, cross-platform enterprise mobile and web applications with capabilities that complement existing team structures. This way, you have the speed and agility of low-code combined with the power of traditional development. Take a look at the video below to learn more.

 

You can see how low-code works in a modern application platform for yourself. Sign up for the OutSystems free edition and follow our tutorials for building web and cross-platform mobile apps in a fraction of the time you’re used to. You'll also be able to help out the next person who asks, “What is low-code?”