Public clouds and big tech target low-code capabilities

Big players are joining the low-code game, offering platforms to help developers and amateurs create apps for everything imaginable.

Public clouds and big tech target low-code capabilities
Iker Urteaga / Unsplash (CC0)

I’ve been using low-code and no-code platforms for almost two decades to build internal workflow applications and rapidly develop customer-facing experiences. I always had development teams working on Java, .NET, or PHP applications built on top of SQL and NoSQL datastores, but the business demand for applications far exceeded what we could develop. Low-code and no-code platforms provided an alternative option when the business requirements matched the platform’s capabilities.

I recently shared seven low-code platforms developers should know and what IT leaders can learn from low-code platform CTOs. Many of these platforms have been around longer than a decade, and some support tens of thousands of business applications. Over time these platforms have improved capabilities, developer experiences, hosting options, enterprise security, devops tools, application integrations, and other competencies that enable rapid development and easy maintainenance of functionally rich applications.

So when the public clouds and big tech companies got more interested in low-code platforms, I was skeptical. First, the public clouds target development and engineering teams that want to code applications, automate CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous deployment) pipelines, and instantiate infrastructure as code. Developing products for citizen developers and others who want to develop with low-code requires different experiences, tools, and functionality.

Second, the stand-alone low-code platforms have evolved through multiple computing paradigms; some go back to client-server days. I had my doubts that newcomers would offer matching capabilities and the strategies and motivations to re-engineer to remain relevant.

I found a mix of different developer experiences and advanced capabilities from the public cloud and big tech companies. In some cases, the low-code platforms are woefully behind stand-alone platforms. In other cases, they are demonstrating how low-code can enable machine learning, chatbots, voice interfaces, spatial search, and more.

Power Apps leads with apps, integration, and machine learning

Microsoft Power Apps and Power Automate (formally Microsoft Flow) went general availability in October 2016, and new versions are released weekly. In that time, Power Apps has evolved into a very rich low-code application development environment to build forms and workflows that connect to multiple data sources. Power Automate now has more than 400 connectors that developers can use to move data in and out of applications and a separate robotic process automation skill.

What sets Power Apps apart is AI Builder, a set of low-code capabilities enabling developers to connect data to natural language processing, image processing, and machine learning. You can train models to categorize and identify entities in text, extract information from forms, identify objects in images, or run predictive models. Some examples include training models to pull invoice data from PDF forms or process photos to update product inventory automatically.

The newest offering, Power Virtual Agents, a low-code chatbot platform, went general availability at the end of 2019. The combination of building a low-code app with an embedded chatbot and integrating workflow with other SaaS solutions can be very powerful. Some example tutorials include chatbots that help users submit project ideas, answer questions during the COVID crisis, or perform simple functions such as getting today’s weather.

Apple’s, Google’s, and Oracle’s ongoing investment in low-code capabilities

Apple and Google have low-code platforms under independently managed subsidiaries. Apple spun off FileMaker back in 1986 and in 2019 they rebranded the company back to its original name, Claris. The low-code platform is now Claris FileMaker, and they added Claris Connect, a platform for integrations, by acquiring Stamplay in 2019.

FileMaker is its 19th major version, and Claris recently launched new add-ons, including calendars, Kanban boards, and photo galleries. FileMaker can now integrate with machine learning models and have Siri answer questions in FileMaker applications. The platform has recently been used by a hospital to track and report patient progress and care and by schools to overcome COVID-19 back-to-school challenges.

Meanwhile, Google bought its way into the low-code scene by acquiring AppSheet in early 2020. I spoke with Amit Zavery, VP/GM and head of platform at Google Cloud, about AppSheet’s growth and emerging capabilities. “Over the last nine months, we also started to see a lot of end-user applications built on top of AppSheet—initially started with the idea that you can build pretty much a departmental app, but people want to automate approval processes, embed video conferencing, inspect documents, and connect to APIs.”

AppSheet has many of the options you find in other low-code platforms, including integrations, forms, and views, but its advanced capabilities demonstrate Google’s plans. For example, the integration of G-Suite and AppSheet can be used to develop intelligent workflows, while developers can enable connection to their APIs using Apigee as a data source.

Some interesting AppSheet applications include a med student’s app that organizes related medical conditions and concepts, a housing association’s app that helps manage back-end operations, and an industrial services company’s app that improve fieldwork efficiency. There are also sample applications to help reduce workplace risk during COVID-19 and others developed for specific industries, including nonprofits and manufacturing.

Oracle is a longtime proponent of low-code development. I reviewed Oracle Application Express (APEX), which has a history dating back to an acquisition made in 2006. APEX has more than 50,000 customers, and developers are generating more than 3,000 applications daily. APEX enables no-code data-driven applications. As Michael Hichwa, SVP Software Development at Oracle states, “APEX uses the power of SQL in a business context.”

One standout feature uses the Oracle database to manage location data exposed through an APEX-developed application. An example is this application to optimize grocery delivery routes during COVID. The community site has more than 30 applications related to COVID-19.

Amazon, Salesforce, SAP, IBM, and Alibaba increase low-code capabilities

The low-code story doesn’t end there, as other public clouds and tech giants add low-code features and platforms.

Software and application development are strategic for organizations investing in customer experiences and employee productivity and wanting to become data driven. The tasks of automating, integrating, and developing experiences is getting easier as more public cloud and technology companies enable low-code and citizen development capabilities.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.