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Low-Code AppDev: The History and Evolution of Automated Coding

Author: Tom Moore | | October 7, 2021


 

Low-Code/No-Code platforms are all the rage in today’s application development sphere. They claim to have the power to speed and simplify the process of application development while also enabling non-developers to become the builders of the apps they need.

 

While this promise may seem new and innovative, it actually has strong roots. Technological innovators have been trying for decades to automate the process of coding to cut down on the hours of effort required to build a functional application. Let’s take a moment to look back on where the idea of low-code began and how it’s evolved over the years. While the term ‘low-code’ was formally introduced by Gartner in 2016, the underlying concept of automated coding is not near as new.

1970s and 80s: 4GL

Fourth Generation Programming Language (4GL) was the technology that spurred interest in automated coding. 4GL includes programming languages like ABAP, Unix Shell, SQL, Oracle Reports, and R, which are non-procedural specification languages that support database management, graphical user interface (GUI), web development, and more technologies we rely on today. James Martin wrote a book called “Applications Development Without Programmers” in 1982, which argued that non-programmers could build applications using 4GL languages like RAMIS and FOCUS.

4GL opened up alternative ways of programming such as table-driven programming, report-generator programming, CASE tool outputs, and “XTalk” languages. In theory, many of these tools were codeless, however it would be difficult to argue that they enabled an application development process that could be executed by non-programmers.

1990s: Rapid Application Development

In the 1990s, the familiar term “rapid application development” (RAD) was popularized with tools like Visual Basic that allowed users to visually assemble desktop applications. The tools focused more on the adaptive process than on planning; the user could focus on the GUI and add business logic step-by-step. RAD was a response to the waterfall method, which was the standard in the 1980s.

While RAD wasn’t necessarily intended to be an attempt at automated coding, it did bring the user into the process of application development. Users participated in the planning and design phases of development, and their input was used to make adjustments all the way to the end of a project. Of course, RAD had its weaknesses. It typically led to a lack of focus on non-functional requirements, it required the engagement of business users who had little time to commit to such projects, and the applications weren’t very scalable.

2000s: Mobile Apps

Model Driven Architecture (MDA) was introduced in 2001 to further ingratiate users into the application development process, but the biggest jump towards automated coding was mobile platforms. In 2007, Apple introduced their first mobile device, swiftly followed by Google Android. Soon, developers were using visual interfaces to develop small-scale apps that could run on these devices. Progressive web apps soon followed, touting a simple dev platform that didn’t require separate bundling or distribution.

As with previous innovations in AppDev, mobile apps were also intended to make application development accessible to the layman. While significant progress has been made, it is still difficult to build anything more than a very simple, static mobile application without coding expertise or access to a developer.

2016: Low-Code Development Platforms

And, of course, 2016 was the year Gartner first introduced the idea of low-code development platforms (LCDP), another attempt to bring users into the development process, this time by having them participate in the actual building of applications. The goal of low-code platforms seems to be that users with little to no software development experience – also known as “citizen developers” – can create new applications that benefit the business.

This appears to be the case with Microsoft Power Apps, which states in its documentation that it “ ‘democratizes’ the custom business app building experience by enabling users to build feature-rich, custom business apps without writing code.” So the user essentially becomes the developer as well. But as with automated coding predecessors, LDCPs have great promise. Unfortunately, they often bring with them unexpected complexities that can augment the cost and difficulty of building an application.

Read more about the promise and potential use cases for low-code platforms by downloading our white paper, “Low-Code/No-Code: Is it the Panacea of Modern AppDev?”

Final Thoughts

Coding has come a long way since the 1970s, and automated coding has made great progress as well. While we are certainly getting closer to creating truly automated coding platforms that enable users to build applications with coding background, we still have a long way to go before expectation becomes reality.

Reach out to our experienced application development team to discuss how we can help you build applications that meet the needs and expectations of your business.

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