How Low-Code is Propelling the Evolution of App Technology

Mark Weaser remembers his grandfather’s first car, a Model A bought fresh off the assembly line when his grandfather was a young man.

Weaser is Vice President, Asia Pacific, at OutSystems, an enterprise low-code Platform-as-a-Service company and market leader.

“That car was almost entirely handmade. Now, if you go to a Tesla factory, it’s all automated for the most part,” he says. “Software is still relatively where the auto industry was a 100 years ago. Software is handmade for the most part, [but] low-code is now becoming more universally adopted.”

Low-code is a visual programming platform that helps to build applications through drag-and-drop interfaces. It accelerates the application building and deployment process, and further allows for reduced manual hand-coding. Think of it as a streamlined automation of software.

The market for and usage of this technology is growing at breakneck speed. Gartner estimates that 65% of development activity will emerge from low-code, with three-quarters of large enterprises using at least four low-code development tools for IT application development as well as citizen development initiatives, by 2024.

“We’re just seeing the evolution of a traditional space like coding that is modernizing like every other manufacturing process, becoming more automated,” Weaser says.

Low-code is somewhat a sister concept to what is known as rapid application development (RAD) tools, although they are not entirely the same, Weaser explains.

Popular in the 1990s and 2000s, RAD provided a framework to generate code in the backend, reducing the volume of code that needed to be written for a given application. It was essentially used to migrate business processes from paper to digital.

Operating in the cloud, low-code is a more streamlined technology than RAD and implements logic and visual programming that help reduce the foundational complexities of the application lifecycle.

RAD is purposed specifically to bolster digital operations, and while low-code can also help companies do this, its strategic benefit lies in building digital experiences, Weaser points out.

“The trend on digital experience as a use case for low-code has been a straight line [up]. We are doing a lot more mobile apps for our customers that provide a service or product for a broad base of B2C type customers,” he explains.

Fueled by the digital era

Digitalization is no longer an innovation of the future, but really, a canonical need for businesses today. In fact, OutSystem’s own user conference, called Next Step, has had to take the virtual route, and will go ahead as a fully online conference this September.

Companies that had previously not realized the need to digitize are doing so now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are racing to adapt as fast as they can.

In this context, Weaser sees the real future of low-code in replacing older legacy technologies and systems at companies, and giving them a “digital core.” This involves a partial or complete overhaul of their systems, which Weaser says can be anywhere between five and 40 years old.

“Enterprises around the world are littered with what we call technical debt or legacy debt, and what low-code platforms do… is to help either replace parts of, or in whole those legacy systems, or to modernize them by providing a customization layer.”

With more businesses wanting to migrate to a digital infrastructure, low-code can help them address the challenge of finding the right skills. In 2019, the shortage of the right skills reached an all-time high since 2008, with 67% of organizations struggling to find adequately qualified IT talent.

The pool of developers who have the right competencies to help these businesses make the shift is growing smaller, making a stronger case for the adoption of low-code, which is by nature a technology that makes software development easier by automating the coding process.

Further, businesses are taking to not only digitalization, but also to the cloud, which erases a barrier to the adoption of low-code, since it is a cloud-based technology.

Cloud technology is in fact expected to account for 50% of the enterprise software market by 2025, with public cloud achieving a market capitalization of $1 trillion this year at a growth rate of 45%.

If this was not enough, the COVID-19 outbreak turned the tables on legacy system-based businesses, serving them an ultimatum to either go digital or go out of business.

“The pandemic is a terrible tragedy, but from a digital perspective, digital companies are attracting more attention and are busier than ever. It’s being driven by the demand for applications,” Weaser says.

Low-code in the Asia Pacific region

The drive to digitize and modernize legacy systems has become critical to the low-code revolution, and is the largest trend in the use of low-code at OutSystems.

APAC is catching up with wide-scale digital transformation, and 87% of companies in the region are expected to reach an advanced stage in their digital transformation in two years.

Interestingly, it is the absence of legacy systems in certain APAC markets that enables them to adopt low-code faster.

An IDC report sponsored by OutSystems finds that Indonesia has a low-code adoption rate of 86%, beating the likes of Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and Japan. OutSystems has also experienced success in the Indian market, where it plans to open two offices, and in the Philippines, Weaser says.

These countries are all emerging markets that have only recently transitioned from replicating Western models to driving innovation first-hand. Weaser notes that this is exactly why low-code is picking up rapidly in these regions–they have very little legacy debt.

“Countries that were not burdened by a lot of technical debt, a lot of old systems, have been able to move very quickly with low-code technologies,” he says.

“Japan for example, has a lot of legacy debt. They developed a lot of systems in mainframe back in the 1960s and 1970s, and some of those systems are still around. We’re actually starting to replace those right now with some very large Japanese companies.”

Weaser adds that newer unicorn companies can leverage advanced technologies right off the bat, helping them deploy solutions quicker and address the market at scale.

Since low-code technology is cloud-based, a startup that is native to the cloud or ‘born into the cloud’ will be able to integrate low-code into its programming in no time. This puts them on the front foot in terms of time to market.

Weaser notes that the time to market with low-code is three to five times faster than with high code, with the ability to update in real-time.

“Low-code allows you to make changes on the fly, and so if you’re an entrepreneur, if you have a great idea and a great go-to-market, the cloud and low-code technologies give you the ability to do things quick and agile… and at low cost relative to what they would have had to set up prior to this technological revolution.”

A critical contemporary trait of markets within Asia Pacific region is a need for technological infrastructure that can match the region’s appetite for digitalization, connectivity, and mobile technology.

Weaser sees low-code playing a prominent role in facilitating this, unsurprisingly, due to its agility and speed as a technology, as well as the ease of deploying low-code.

“I’m one of those always with my eye on the fact that we’re on the dawn of the Asian century and I think we’ll look back at COVID-19 as the primary marker for Asia, in general, [being] the most prominent area of the world going forward,” he says.

Cloud, Coding, and COVID-19

It is, without a doubt, a long and sustained period of incredible volatility for companies, many of which have had to take painful decisions to make it to the next day. However, companies are now thinking beyond survival, towards revival.

“You have to really kind of readjust your thinking and your timeline on becoming a digital enterprise… [Companies] have had to accelerate the whole digital part of their strategy and make that the center of their companies, and try to find a way to get to the other side without stepping in a landmine,” he also says.

A digital strategy, and one that can be executed quickly, is an indispensable part of such a revival. Even before COVID-19, business spending on digital transformation was forecast to reach $2.3 trillion by 2023, accounting for over half of all IT spending.

At the same time, the pandemic has resulted in an estimated cut-back of 8% in global IT spending. Weaser points out that with shrinking IT budgets now redirected to digital initiatives, and a pressing need for shorter lead times on projects, low-code could perhaps be the leg-up that companies now need.

“Companies have had to take a three- to four-year timeline on their digital transformation and then condense it to one or two years,” Weaser notes.

In his view, the way ahead for companies investing in low-code is to bring IT and business departments together, reprioritize app development relevant to the needs of the pandemic, and then be able to deliver value quickly.

At the same time, businesses need to seriously consider if they need low-code at all. It is after all an investment, and the pandemic only exacerbates the risks associated with making an unwise investment decision.

Weaser finds that the balance may have shifted either way before, but not anymore.

“If there was ever a transition from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have, we crossed that chasm with the pandemic. I think it’s seen as a need-to-have technology now, I think we’re seeing that in the demand at OutSystems and we’re seeing it in the overall space,” he says.

Where will the developers go?

Studies suggest that the Asia Pacific region has large numbers of engineer graduates, led by China and India, that depend heavily on the tech revolution to provide them with jobs. Subsequently, a concern to address is whether low-code automation will put programmers out of a job.

In the larger employment versus automation debate, there are largely two key schools of thought, one that sees employment threatened by automation, and the other that sees jobs enhanced by it instead, creating a kind of hybrid workforce.

“We expect that software will, like every other industry, become automated… And so, the role of the developer then evolves to one that’s more of an architect, that’s more of a designer, that’s more focused on the experience for the end user.”

Moreover, what is largely being touted as one of the greater benefits of low-code is that it democratizes coding–anyone can be a coder with low-code. Weaser himself has received stories of young adolescents building apps via the OutSystems platform.

However, the democratization of any digital technology is a layered result of a number of factors that need to come together, including qualitative and equitable access to such a technology. Weaser believes that the way forward is in building a community of developers who act as enablers for the technology, down to the university level.

“I think the enabling factor for low-code is really just finding certified developers and people that understand the technology,” he says. “We’ve actually started to work with universities around the world to teach it in curriculum. We just need to continue to move in the direction of becoming mainstream and getting the community built out around the technology.”

Ultimately, like many other technologies, low-code is about enabling people to do their jobs better. It may perhaps not be the next big thing to revolutionize what the software landscape looks like, but rather, an evolutionary step forward in the larger picture of how the world interacts and integrates with technology.

Header image by pressfoto on Freepik

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