UPDATED 17:57 EDT / MARCH 18 2020


How low-code can cloud app dev go?

There’s a tidal wave coming in the way of software services designed to minimize the amount of coding needed to build modern business applications.

With today’s enterprise app development needs growing more and more demanding by the day, information technology providers are attempting to serve this market by packing increasingly large, varied chunks of IT into all-in-one plug-and-play offerings. There are now platforms — often built on cloud infrastructure from hyperscalers such as Amazon Web Services Inc. — with everything needed to build a polished application. Some are geared toward developers, while others require no coding knowledge at all. 

These services enable faster prototyping and go-to-market solutions for web, mobile and SaaS apps than traditional development typically has. In fact, they are about to unleash a wave of innovative new SaaS apps to rival the onslaught of mobile apps we saw in recent years, according to Jerry Chen, partner at Greylock Partners, who saw this trend coming well before its arrival.

“You’re going to see distribution in the cloud making it easy to get your apps out there,” Chen told theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile livestreaming studio, at the 2018 AWS re:invent conference. “You’re going to see a bunch of new markets open up.”

Will customers rushing to “Uberize” a market before someone else does choose public-cloud Goliaths for all their app needs? Or will they instead flock to the low-code/no-code startups spawned from their innovation flywheel? 

Thanks to cloud, companies today are accustomed to purchasing abstracted IT capabilities while letting someone else deal with the hardware, or even — in the case of software as a service — the more complicated software elements. Startups or other businesses looking to release an application will often look for the lowest entry point possible. They want technology that requires little or no on-premises space, no large upfront investment, and as little configuring as possible. 

App platforms slice and dice cloud

Application migrations — from on-premises data centers to cloud and, heaven forbid, back again — are notoriously arduous. This is why, despite all the noise about moving to cloud, most applications built on-prem are staying there. However, companies often desire to build new applications in the cloud, and startups with a fresh slate are largely opting to run in the cloud. Consumption-based pricing, agility and elasticity are theirs for the taking without the headaches of migration or refactoring. 

What exactly “cloud” means to new companies is flexible, however. There is cloud infrastructure — including compute instances and storage buckets — to be purchased a la carte from public-cloud providers, such as AWS, Microsoft Corp.’s Azure and Google Cloud Platform. There are also managed cloud services from smaller providers. There’s Google Cloud’s App Engine, which pre-packages cloud services and configures so that developers can start coding right away.

Then there are low-code or no-code app-building platforms that require zero coding or programming knowledge and allow users to design their app with pre-built, drag-and-drop features. The global low-code development platform market was valued at $5.6 billion in 2018, according to research from Prescient & Strategic Intelligence Pvt. Ltd. P&S expects the market to reach $52.3 billion by 2024. 

So should startups with limited cash and staff go with hyperscalers, smaller cloud service providers, or app-building platforms? The answer may depend on how much developer talent they have at their disposal.

“If they have developers in-house, the public clouds are going to provide the easiest on-ramp — and have free tiers on many services,” according to Stu Miniman, analyst at Wikibon Inc., SiliconANGLE Media’s sister company. “I’m not saying that public cloud replaces all small players or even all data centers, i.e., private cloud. But the public clouds and their ecosystem/marketplaces are a strong pull that must be considered.” 

However, even companies with in-house developers may opt for all-in-one platforms if they speed up the overall development process. At present, smaller startups are beating regular cloud to the in-production punch, according to Mayur Shah, director of product management at low-code startup WaveMaker Inc. WaveMaker provides a validated set of pre-integrated services tied together and accessible via simple, abstracted visual tooling. Users can develop and deliver an entire application through a single interface, enabling developers to build modern, cloud-native enterprise applications 67% faster than they could through other means, the company claims. 

Customers increasingly desire such shortcuts to keep the pace with digital business. “The right low-code platform that aligns with the enterprise way of modern application development will continue to gain major traction for the benefits it provides,” Shah said. 

No developers, no problem

Loads of entrepreneurs with an idea for an app don’t have developers on deck and can’t contract them for tens of thousands of dollars to hammer it out — at least not before peddling the idea to VCs first. With software eating the world, people far outside Menlo Park, California, are coming up with plans to “appify” just about everything. For them, vendors are bringing out products they claim can churn out sophisticated, tailor-designed applications with no coding, no server configuring, and no IT salaries to pay. 

French company GoodBarber offers a platform for building and hosting progressive web apps with mobile versions for Google Play and iPhone’s App Store. The fees are minuscule compared to the combined price of pro development and cloud infrastructure one might otherwise pay. Yearly plans run $25, $48 and $96 per month.

One app-building startup to achieve a high profile in the last couple of years is Builder. With the phrase “software as easy as ordering pizza” heading its homepage at Builder.ai, the company claims that users can complete over 80% of a mobile app in about an hour with zero programming or coding knowledge needed. 

At least part of Builder’s story may be too good to be true — the part where it calls it’s product “human-assisted AI.” Last year, Builder Chief Business Officer Robert Holdheim sued the company, claiming it exaggerated its AI capabilities to acquire the funding needed to actually bring the technology into existence. Builder Chief Executive Officer Sachin Duggal “was telling investors that [Builder’s prior incarnation] Engineer.ai was 80% done with developing a product that, in truth, he had barely even begun to develop,” Holdheim said, as quoted by The Verge

What Builder, whose total funding to date is $29.5 million, actually does is rely on human engineers in India and other places for the bulk of development work. This might not be so bad — who cares if it’s AI or human intelligence as long as the app gets built? — if not for the pricing. Those coming to the site thinking they’re paying for unmanned tech to auto-build an app may be jarred by quotes like $37,000 for a messaging app. Builder claims on its site that this is easily less than most U.S.-based development shops would charge. Still, the phrase “AI-assisted humans” seems more fitting for the service and its pricing than its self-chosen “human-assisted AI.” 

The big public clouds have also brought out packaged app-building services. Google Cloud offers App Engine; AWS offers a similar all-in-one platform for developers with Amplify; and the fully managed App Service is Microsoft Azure’s answer to the market. These are all geared toward developers, though, not anyone who just has an idea for an app. The latter may not be so keen on things like authenticating users, authorizing selective access to data, executing server-side code, etc. For them, no-code platforms with visual design, and perhaps some bargain-priced techies waiting in the wings to do the hard parts for them, are probably a more attractive option.

Time to market trumps all

Even those with coding skills may not want to use packaged app-building services if they don’t have to. This is because time to market is so crucial these days. In fact, bringing an idea to market as quickly as possible, maintaining a robust data repository, and personalizing core activities are the three keys to application success today, according to Bogdan Litescu, chief executive officer at Plant an App, a low-code app-dev platform currently in San Francisco’s 500 Startups program. 

The personalization of software applications presents a dilemma, according to Litescu. Custom development is expensive and time consuming, slowing down time to market and increasing a venture’s risk factor; software-as-a-service templates tend to offer little in the way of customization. Both app-centered startups and established businesses with a digital presence face this problem.

“Some businesses take pride in fanatical support service and have some processes in place to ensure that is perceived by their customers,” Litescu told theCUBE. “A generic help desk SaaS will not do the trick. They would just force the business to adapt to the industry standards, losing their edge in the process. It needs to be custom software, and it needs to be constantly iterated on and improved.” 

Most of the code that developers write has been done over and over again in the past, according to Litescu. Plant an App users basically mix and match tried-and-true code constructs visually through a set of configuration screens to build unique applications.  

“When it comes to very specific functionalities, experienced developers can be involved in writing and plugging the custom code into the low-code applications,” Litescu said. “Our customers achieved 20 times faster go-to-market compared to traditional custom development. The feedback loops also become faster, from an average of two weeks with traditional development to an average of two hours on Plant an App.” 

Who will corner low-code dev market?

Visual configuration with as little human-developer input as possible seems to be the model today’s low-code customers prefer. It effectively sells the end result many public cloud customers pursue — bespoke applications — through a packaged service approachable to people who’ve never had to choose from dozens of compute instances and don’t want to. And they may even save a bit on cost in the bargain. 

Builder, which has doubled revenue over the past two years, runs on top of AWS infrastructure. Duggal has spoken about the economic and innovative advantages possible for startups who build their offerings out of hyperscale cloud resources. The company deals in a form of technology arbitrage; it buys future infrastructure capacity from AWS for bulk prices. Then it sells it in smaller chunks for a higher retail price to its customers. These customers save about 7% over what they’d pay Amazon for these parcels of cloud, Duggal told The Economic Times

The way Builder and others leverage cloud is a bit reminiscent of the way AWS borrowed quite liberally from the open-source software community to build its catalog of services. It will be interesting to see if, as this new market of easy app-building platforms grows, AWS and other large public clouds will attempt to “Walmart” competitors with the easiest, cheapest no-code app platforms imaginable. Looking at the way AWS and other hyperscalers have operated, it’s fairly clear that if there is enough customer demand — for low-code development or anything else — they will likely bring out services to meet it.

They may also choose to simply buy these attractive new startups, according to Shah. “Public cloud providers are keen on acquiring the market for low-code development. As with any technology that is highly competitive and on the maturity curve, we’ll see consolidation happening,” he concluded.

Photo by Hitesh Choudhary

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