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Low-code platform leaders for business users push usability, AI

One research house identified the top low-code development platforms that target business users who want to build mobile apps without coding.

Can't hire developers fast enough to build enterprise mobile apps? You're not alone, and this dearth of talent continues to drive the acceleration of low-code development platforms for business users.

Low-code platforms enable business users with little or no programming experience to build new mobile apps, or to customize and mobile-enable existing applications and business processes. These platforms also help business users to create interactive reports or dashboards and replace pen-and-paper forms with dynamic forms.

Forrester Research projected, by 2020, the market for low-code development platforms will grow by 55%. Today, rapid adoption of low-code platforms drives about 50% annual growth in a market populated by dozens of vendors, said John Rymer, an analyst at Forrester. Currently, the entire market is worth about $4 billion.

In a recent study of nearly 1,500 users, Forrester found 23% of developers work at companies that have added or expanded low-code platforms. Another 22% said they will do so in the next 12 months.

"Those are pretty healthy numbers, in my opinion," said Jeffrey Hammond, a Forrester analyst and co-author of the report.

Forrester's low-code leaders

Forrester also identified 12 key vendors, but it singled out three -- AppSheet, Betty Blocks and Microsoft -- as leaders for their easy startup experience, automatic app creation, native UI controls and robust location support.

Microsoft's PowerApps targets business users and is free with an Office 365 or Dynamics license. This also lets users connect with other Microsoft tools aimed at business users, such as Flow and Power BI, via the adoption of the Microsoft Common Data Service. PowerApps users can automatically create applications from data sets and navigate interface controls similar to PowerPoint formulas employed in Microsoft Excel.

Like all accelerated app development technologies, AI and ML have to be applied properly or you'll rapidly get a mess of code that's unmanageable.
Ronald Schmelzeranalyst, Cognilytica

Betty Blocks, based in Alkmaar, Netherlands, touts its product as a no-code platform provider, because it doesn't require users to know a thing about code or interact with code in any way. Betty Blocks uses the concept of building blocks, where users apply premade building blocks of functionality to create applications. Users can get these building blocks from a public block store, or more sophisticated users can build their own blocks and keep them in a private block store.

In particular, Betty Blocks users said they like the product's startup experience and the ability to use blocks to build their apps, Forrester's Hammond said.

However, Betty Blocks' unique pricing model charges customers by the number of blocks used, rather than by the number of users. For more complex apps, this could get expensive, Hammond noted.

AppSheet's AI tech

Meanwhile, Seattle-based AppSheet uses artificial intelligence technologies, such as natural language processing and machine learning, to help nonprogramming business users create applications. The platform lets users move data from Excel or Google Sheets and create applications based on that data.

AppSheet is a "powerful facilitator" for business users with little or no programming knowledge to quickly build apps, Hammond said. However, the ease of app creation with the AppSheet platform comes at a cost, as it limits a user's ability to create a custom UI, he said.

Its Spec feature lets users create applications that use simple English phrases with natural language processing. With machine learning, the more it's used, the smarter it gets.

Ronald Schmelzer, analyst, CognilyticaRonald Schmelzer

This is the beginning of increased usage of AI and machine learning technologies for app development, said Ronald Schmelzer, principal analyst at Cognilytica in Washington, D.C. Companies such as Appian have started to meld more machine learning into their low-code tools, and other startups use it to generate content in a wide range of formats, including text and video, he added.

However, "like all accelerated app development technologies, AI and machine learning have to be applied properly or you'll rapidly get a mess of code that's unmanageable," Schmelzer said. Such tools are most useful for Rapid prototyping, projects that meet line-of-business needs with little IT support and other use cases that do not require traditional development lifecycles, he said.

These tools most likely will evolve to become "assisted intelligence," rather than artificial intelligence, Forrester's Hammond said.

"As these technologies are implemented, it will make developers more productive, as opposed to replacing them," he said.

In its study, Forrester identified, analyzed and rated what it considered the 12 most significant mobile low-code platform providers. They are the following, in alphabetical order: AppSheet, Betty Blocks, Dropsource, DSI, Intelledox, Microsoft, MobileSmith, Pulpstream, Quick Base, Skuid, Snappii and Zudy.

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