Is no-code just a passing fad?

July 19, 2020

You may have heard about the no-code movement these days. It’s a new paradigm which “threatens” the jobs of million of software developers around the world. Lead by companies such as Webflow and Zapier the no-code movement promises abilities formerly reserved for the few wizards of coding.

Zapier

Zapier allows you to create workflows called “Zaps”. They consist of a trigger and one or more actions. For example: When I get a mention on Twitter send me an email and also add a new task on Basecamp. The trigger here is the Twitter mention and the rest are the actions.

Now, the way you can do something like that using code involves something like the procedure below:

  1. Create a basic app and host it somewhere on the internet.
  2. Create code which connects every few minutes to the Twitter API and checks for new mentions.
  3. Send an email to a pre-configured address.
  4. Create code which connects to the Basecamp API and adds a task.

At first, you have to admit that the code version looks a little bit more complicated. You bet it’s more complicated. Even with a very productive framework in place (like Ruby on Rails for example) you have to deal with technicalities like API credentials and so on.

In conclusion: Time to build using code: 2 to 5 hours. Time to build using Zapier: 1 to 5 minutes. But this comparison is just the visible tip of the iceberg. The real question here is how much time an individual must spend, in order to get to the point where it takes 2 hours to code this workflow.

At best you need to have at least a few months of programming experience in order to build this workflow into an app. And this is at last the real value of a no-code platform like zapier. It allows people without a software engineering background to “code” workflows and solutions to business problems.

Site builders revisited

Site builders have existed for almost as long as there are websites. If you are old enough you may remember Microsoft Frontpage and Dreamweaver. Those were essentially HTML editors with the ability to code and also create interfaces using “no-code” visual tools.

These tools were essential tools for web developers of the 90s. However going to the new decade they became less and less popular as they were known to produce bloated code which performed poorly in W3C validation tests.

In the hosting industry there have been a lot of tools that allowed users to create websites without writing code. Those tools have been generally been called just “site builders”. However they never really caught on and as time went by, they faded out into obsolescence.

Fast forward into today and we find a new generation of Software As a Service platforms which allow people to easily create websites. You may have heard of Wix or Squarespace or even Webflow. All these products allow you to create websites with little or more functionality.

However you still have way more capability with websites crafted using code. Will this new generation of tools have the faith of its predecessors? There are a few key differences this time around.

First of all these new web apps are heavily marketed. They have attracted large amounts in VC funding and launched large marketing campaigns which include TV ads among others.

The target audience this time, is not web developers but everyday casual users. What if Wix or Webflow will never match WordPress or custom code in features and functionality? What if they never become the favourite tools of web developers? If they can get all average Joes then we are looking at a huge number of customers. And this should be called success, shouldn’t it?

The metric that matters

Back in 2007 the iPhone was released. Steve Ballmer (then CEO of Microsoft) said that “it’s the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard and that makes it not a very good email machine”.

Fast forward into today, iPhone-style multitouch phones (iPhone & Android) have 99% of the market and Windows Phones are not produced anymore. It also turned out that multitouch phones appeal to business users and they are pretty good email machines.

The iPhone was a revolution because it scored high in the metric that matters the most. That is user friendliness among regular users. If you can get the masses to follow your revolution the power users and the developers will follow.

Back then the business customers were mostly Blackberry users. And indeed Blackberry didn’t vanish overnight from the market but eventually… it did vanish. I’m not saying web developers will vanish overnight but you know… eventually they may vanish.

Leaked image from an upcoming update to Webflow.

Check out the image above. It is from an upcoming update to Webflow. This is one of those features that can make technical users adopt a SaaS platform such as Webflow. It is similar to flowcharts. A technique all programmers learn at the university.

Similar revolutions happen all the time. WordPress did it itself when it allowed people to update their WordPress code and plugins without uploading files using FTP but instead by just pressing a button in their control panel. It also did it when it allowed people to search for new themes from within WordPress without having to search around the web.

Is the timing right?

Besides the timing has never been better for a revolution in the way web sites and web apps are made. I remember back in the 90s it was fairly easy to create a website. All you needed was HTML knowledge & some PHP. Now the bar is very hight.

Now in order to call yourself a web developer you have to know 1 or 2 JavaScript frameworks, CSS, preprocessors, deployment tools, a few backend frameworks and the corresponding languages underneath and the list goes on.

The competition has made interfaces way more complex with new requirements such as being responsive, fast and real time. The backend has become more complex as well with requirements to connect to various APIs, apply some form of machine learning to generate things like related products in a store.

Of course those high requirements won’t go away anytime soon. Quite the opposite. However there is great complexity involved which creates equally great demand for simplification. And this is exactly what this new generation of no-code tools brings to the table.

Conclusion

This is one of those times when something gets democratised. Like ebay democratised commerce. Like the iPhone democratised (portable) computers. Like WordPress democratised blogging.

It’s very rare in the history of technology and computing for some simpler approach to fail. It’s up to this new generation of no-code tools to rise up to the challenge and offer a simpler way to do previously complex things.

No, traditional software development won’t go away overnight but it will surely transform to something simpler and more modern.