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No code, no problem? AWS wants to sell you a world of prefab software

The cloud giant entered the so-called "no code" market this week, another sign that more companies want tools that let their business experts bypass the IT department.

Amazon Honeycode

Amazon Honeycode allows users to create web and mobile business applications without having to hassle the IT department.

Image: Amazon

The world needs more "good enough" software.

As big companies outside the tech industry rush toward digital transformation — which is often just well-marketed business FOMO — they no longer need to be convinced that they should use modern software throughout every aspect of their business. It's clear, however, that a lot of those companies don't have the time, money or expertise required to compete with top-tier software development organizations.

Enter "no code" and "low code" development tools. The two categories are often conflated, and they shouldn't be: They describe distinct software development workflows and require different levels of expertise. Low-code tools generally require the user to understand the basics of programming languages, while no-code tools are accessible to anyone with a mouse and a browser; you could even think of Minecraft as a no-code development tool. But both achieve the task of making it easier for people to build software.

AWS shook up this market in a big way Wednesday when it launched Amazon Honeycode, a no-code development tool modeled after perhaps the most widely used business tool: the spreadsheet. Amazon Honeycode allows users to create web and mobile business applications without having to hassle the IT department, and joins several similar tools already available from cloud rivals Microsoft and Google.

Software created with these tools won't rival what tech giants are cranking out from software development teams with three-comma budgets. But for an increasingly large number of companies, that's fine: They just need something that looks decent, works reliably, and doesn't cost millions of dollars to build and maintain.

And the number of companies reaching that conclusion seems likely to accelerate if economic weakness persists on the back of a surge in new cases of COVID-19 heading into 2021. These companies have no choice but to modernize their software, but now they don't have to break the bank to do so.

"The way you do development has just changed," said Charles Lamana, corporate vice president, citizen applications platform at Microsoft. "The way a large enterprise should think about enterprise application development is fundamentally different."

What's code?

No-code development tools, which is how you can describe Amazon Honeycode, are designed to be used by what marketing departments like to call "power users" of enterprise software. These people are not developers, but they can do amazing things with spreadsheets and know the business tactics and goals of their company far better than the IT department.

Many no-code tools involve dragging and dropping preset templates, combining them to create logic trees that can handle essential business tasks such as processing invoices. Others interpret existing corporate data and present it in an easier-to-understand user interface that's accessible to the bosses.

A surprisingly large number of businesses still run a lot of their core business processes in spreadsheets shared across teams and departments. That works, to a certain extent, but can be confusing and almost hostile to anyone but the owner of that spreadsheet.

Amazon Honeycode Amazon Honeycode is a new no-code development tool modeled after perhaps the most widely used business tool: the spreadsheet.Image: Amazon

No-code tools like Amazon Honeycode and Google AppSheet can take data trapped in spreadsheets and present it the form of an app, with a friendly user interface designed around modern user experience protocols. Without having to write a single line of code, business users creating those apps can customize the presentation of that data, add other important data sources, and create rules to automatically generate actions based on that data.

Customers in industries that are "business-process centric" are very interested in no-code tools, said Amit Zavery, vice president/general manager and head of platform for Google Cloud. That includes companies in the insurance industry, who have a lot of representatives in the field gathering data that needs to sync with complicated custom back-end systems, or companies where inventory management is the lifeblood of their business.

"They have a lot of analysts or business users or citizen developers, but they don't have huge IT shops," Zavery said. "For them, this is a much more natural way of getting things done, instead of waiting for six months or 12 months for somebody else to build it for them."

A little code goes a long way

Low-code tools are a little different, because some understanding of professional coding is still required to produce an app. But in reality, business users can get the app 80% or so of the way there, with professional developers stepping in to complete the last steps.

Microsoft's Lamana argues that these kinds of more powerful tools, such as Microsoft's Power Apps, are needed when building applications that might be used by thousands of employees inside a company or potentially the general public.

"We have customers with an app built with no developers and no coders but still using our low-code capabilities that have 40,000 to 50,000 monthly active users inside of a company," Lamana said. "That's an app you're going to be hard-pressed to build in a pure no-code solution."

This is the eventual promise of the low-code market, said Mike Hughes, senior director of product marketing for Outsystems, where, he said, "low-code platforms are used to create mission-critical applications." Outsystems has customers who have tried to build key business applications with dozens of developers in sophisticated programming languages only to fail and find that low-code tools are cheaper and easier to use, he said.

Another benefit of low-code tools is that they free up developers, adding coding expertise where needed to low-code apps but otherwise focusing on their company's trickiest and most important projects.

These types of tools are not new: Tech vendors have been pushing this vision for decades, dating back to the days of Visual Basic and PowerBuilder. They worked well in the preweb era, but a lot of companies and developers have increasingly shrugged at those sorts of low-code tools because they can't handle the complexity that software now requires. A lot of software developers would rather just build it themselves than depending on a template, Google's Zavery said.

But as economic circumstances change and companies can no longer afford as many expensive developers as they could in a boom market, even software developers might be forced to do more with less.

Cracking the code

With AWS deciding to finally enter this market, after years of signals and preliminary development projects, all three major cloud vendors have now committed to helping software developers of every standard.

No-code tools like AppSheet, which Google acquired earlier this year, tend to enter an organization at the team or department level, which is how a lot of enterprise software has been purchased over the last decade. Low-code tools like Microsoft's Power Apps tend to be sold into an organization's IT department, as part of a broader package of software.

Amazon Honeycode represents new territory for AWS. Rank-and-file developers were most responsible for AWS' early growth, spinning up "rogue IT" applications on cloud servers when they couldn't get stodgy CIOs to give them company resources for skunkworks projects. But no-code tools are typically purchased by marketing managers, or finance wizards, and those people are not as familiar with AWS.

"This will be an interesting test for AWS as they have struggled to sell anything to anyone beyond hard core developers and infrastructure engineers," said Charles Fitzgerald, an angel investor and former Microsoft executive.

The march of technology has always involved layers of abstraction, sweeping away obstacles and making computer programming more accessible. If AWS can spread its magic beyond the developers that made it rich, software might finally be ready for its prefab moment.

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