Today, low-code/no-code platforms—or, platforms that allow users to build applications and workflow solutions without having to write code—are everywhere.
They’re being used to more seamlessly automate processes, reduce the custodial burden on IT teams, and facilitate citizen development. Speaking at the Gartner IT Symposium earlier this week, Gartner analyst Milind Govekar told the assembled that he believes application development is moving to “low code or no code” in general—and that, come 2025, most internal business applications will be developed via low-code or no-code builders by the people who use them.
The market for low-code/no-code, meanwhile, is projected to hit $45.5 billion by 2025.
But how did we get here?
History of No-Code
The history of the no-code movement runs parallel, in many ways, to the history of programming more generally.
Though it may not seem that way, the science of software development has always revolved around this effort of trying to make computers easier to use. Every new generation of programming language has worked to this end: assembly language replaced machine code, then more high-level programming languages replaced assembly code.
The history of no-code is the history, in this sense, of computer accessibility.
From vacuum tubes to spreadsheets
Consider how early computer programming was done entirely through hardware. Switches needed to be flipped, vacuum tubes needed to be replaced, and literal bugs had to be removed from circuitry. Programmable computers eventually began to read punch cards, but they required programmers to have very specialized knowledge of the computer’s machine code—and each make and model of computer had its own machine code, of course.
In 1954, John Backus invented FORTRAN, the first widely-used high-level general purpose programming language. FORTRAN and its related languages constituted a huge step towards making computer programming more understandable, but it still required a large amount of specialized knowledge. Only trained mathematicians and computer programmers could get much use out of these tools. Unfortunately, that’s how things largely remained for a long time.
In the early 1980s, computers saw increased adoption by a wider array of users. With the emergence of the personal computer, even small businesses and technology-minded solo-entrepreneurs could afford a computer or two for their offices.
Further, as tools such as spreadsheets and word processors gained popularity, even people who had no programming or IT experience began to see the potential uses of computers. Thanks to the power of spreadsheets, business users could perform data analysis far beyond what they were capable of with a desktop calculator and a legal pad—and all without specialized computer programs.
Of course, what one could do with spreadsheets was still rather limited, especially in comparison with what users today are able to do with low-code/no-code platforms. But inside forward-thinking organizations, new awareness of what computers made possible—how they could empower not just developers, but any one with the desire to use them—had been born.
Visual Basic, Email, and the World Wide Web
The shift toward increased technological accessibility continued. The next big leap came in 1991, when Microsoft released Visual Basic. While this was a high-level programming language, it also included tools for rapid development of front-end graphical user interfaces and was explicitly designed to be easier to learn than earlier-generation programming languages. Though not truly a no-code or low-code experience, Visual Basic was certainly less code.
Still, it wasn’t until the emergence of the World Wide Web that the no-code movement gained something like a recognizable shape. The internet birthed the first services such as Geocities, LiveJournal, and Blogger, that allowed users to build things while having some of the front-end development done for them.
Every year from that point, more and more platforms appeared that abstracted programming concepts for customers so that they could leverage more and more of the technological functionality long accessible only to programmers—the promise of no-code taking further shape. For example, the early 2000s saw the release of the first no-code website development platforms like Squarespace, Joomla, and Wix—not to mention the immensely popular WordPress.
At the same time, no-code mass email platforms were also gaining ground. Mailchimp was released in 2001. By way of template-based, no-code email builders and no-code marketing automation tools, Mailchimp allowed users to build complex email campaigns on their own, and to take control of the entire email marketing process without having to rely on IT for support.
From building websites to building solutions
While the initial wave of no-code tools was focused on helping individuals and small businesses create websites and email campaigns, the most recent chapter has been defined by enterprises using no-code technology to enable business teams to solve more complex business challenges.
The solutions business teams are building with no-code vary widely. Certain platforms facilitate app development. Some automate tasks—such as, for example, those related to updating data in cloud systems. Some integrate systems. And others, like Tonkean, help enterprises orchestrate processes, in effect enabling users to achieve all of the above.
The Future of No-Code
Where will the no-code movement go from here?
Well, it appears likely that, among other things, non-developers will be empowered to build increasingly complex software solutions using no-code platforms.
One way this will happen is via a shift inside the enterprise from a siloed operational structure—wherein business users remain dependent on IT for all their development needs—to a composable structure, wherein non-developers are equipped with technological capabilities, or “building blocks,” with which to compose and combine complex software programs, without having to rely on or bother IT. This is similar, in a way, to the way developers build programs mixing and matching components from open source libraries today.
An enterprise that has adopted a composable infrastructure is what’s known as a Composable Enterprise, which is an enterprise in which previously siloed technology and data environments are connected, and in which the ability to be technologically creative is democratized. It allows, among other things, for organizations to both increase efficiency, and tap into new sources of innovation, creativity, and mental firepower. Personally, meanwhile, it makes possible a more enjoyable and gratifying work environment.
In a way, it represents the manifestation of what has been no-code’s economic and tactical promise all along.