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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.

Protocol | Fintech

Plaid’s COO is riding fintech’s choppy waves

He's a striking presence on the beach. If he navigates Plaid's data challenges, Eric Sager will loom large in the financial world as well.

Plaid COO Eric Sager is an avid surfer.

Photo: Plaid

Eric Sager is an avid surfer. It's a fitting passion for the No. 2 executive at Plaid, a startup that's riding fintech's rough waters — including a rogue wave on the horizon that could cause a wipeout.

As Plaid's chief operating officer, Sager has been helping the startup navigate that choppiness, from an abandoned merger with Visa to a harsh critique by the CEO of a top Wall Street bank.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Protocol | Enterprise

Tony Bates hears the call at Genesys

Running a contact center company isn't as sexy as his previous gigs. But this company could be the best chance for him to make a lasting mark.

Tony Bates arrived at Genesys as CEO after hopscotching through various parts of the tech industry.

Photo: Genesys

Be careful what you wish for. For Tony Bates, that's been running a big tech company.

He rose to Cisco's top ranks but didn't get the No. 1 job. His big CEO break was at Skype when it was poised to go public — but months into that gig, Bates' venture backers sold it to Microsoft instead. After a stint at Microsoft, where some eyed Bates for the CEO job that went to Satya Nadella, he took over GoPro. There, he got cut in a round of layoffs as the camera company struggled. He joined Social Capital, which helped fund Slack and Box, for a gig that lasted a year before tech investor Chamath Palihapitiya blew up the venture capital firm he started.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Protocol | Enterprise

Can we talk? Microsoft unveils voice and text-chat service for developers.

Web and mobile developers will be able to use Azure Communication Services to let customers chat with service reps directly from their apps or web sites.

Microsoft is adding more communication services to Azure.

Photo: Microsoft

One year after the pandemic forced businesses to adapt in countless ways, the race to overhaul how they interact with their customers is starting to heat up.

Microsoft said Tuesday it would release Azure Communication Services into the wild this week, kicking off the first day of its Ignite virtual conference. The service, first introduced at the autumn version of Ignite last September, allows developers to embed voice, text chat, SMS or video capabilities into their applications.

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Tom Krazit

Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET and paidContent, and served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure.

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