What is Low Code Platforms?

Current digitalization mindset for SME in Singapore

For many of us, softwares are probably created by a bunch of computer nerds that pound on their keyboards all day. The black screen with lines and lines of texts looks so daunting to most of us as we are getting exposed to so much rich media content online these days. Most companies thinks that developing custom business softwares are for the “big companies” with deep pockets where they can hire either software houses or employ a team of developers in house to develop their business software. The sad thing is that they are almost correct! With growing demands in software engineers, talent pools are snapped up quickly by big tech companies right out of university. Then there are the start ups that have amazing culture that appeals to freshly minted engineers. Lastly with the massive digitalization drive by our SG government, SME now have to compete with government agencies and stat boards for engineers. There left so little available engineers out in the market for SME to hire. The struggles for SME to push forward their digitalization is only going to get tougher. Many resorted to off the shelves softwares for their business needs which have many shortcomings for individual unique needs of each companies.

New frontier for an old technology

Recent years, there are a big push for low code platforms by a few big technology companies. Low code platforms are software engineering technologies that adopt graphical user interface to allow users to structure codes instead of the traditional black screen with thousands lines of code. What these platforms does essentially was pre-defined modules of codes that traditional developers have to hand write in codes to create similar functions of the software. By doing that, low code platforms are able to extract the complexities of traditional coding and present the structure of software in a way that most people understands. But hey, how can that be even be possible? If it is possible then many of the biggest tech companies will long be gone by now! Yes and no. First low code platforms cannot pre-define all the functions capable by the traditional coding. Furthermore, hand coding create creativity in software engineering. In simple form, there are many ways to achieve a function, some of the top engineers develop codes that are so elegant and efficient that allows millions of users to use the software at the same time. For example: We all know that video files are exceptionally large by nature. That is even so if the video is of high resolution. So do we know why there are so little companies like Youtube? Why can’t another company just create a website to host videos for all of the world to watch on the fly? It is because Youtube engineers were the first to crack the code to transmit large video files through the slow internet without viewers to continuously seeing a loading icon on their screens. Youtube engineers manage to write software to trans-code large video files and stream to millions of viewers at one go. That is why they dominated the market for so many years. The complexity is beyond the context of this post but I want to relate something that most of you uses. Most SME do not need complex softwares, but they all need custom softwares that cater for each companies needs. Low code platforms provide all of the customizations require to create software for businesses. Because of the simplicity, the cost to develop a custom software is very low compare to the traditional route. Turnaround speed from inception to deployment is also much faster than traditional software engineering. Last and most importantly, internal staffs can be trained to perform administrative role for their custom software after it has been deployed make it especially appealing to SME.

What are the available Low Code Platforms available in the market?

Outsystems and Salesforce Lightning

As with all services, there are different tiers of low code platforms available in the market. Some are extremely features rich and easy to pick up but also extremely costly to deploy. While there are some that are relatively low cost but have lesser features. I am unable to cover all of them here but I will go a few key ones that I am familiar with. Let’s start with the elephants, Outsystem and Salesforce Lightning. Both are power houses for low code platforms as they offer enterprise grade drag and drop interfaces for extremely quick deployment. They are also very scalable to handle thousands of users should there be a requirement. But they are very expensive to start with. Each platforms also have their specialty engineers to help companies to create their custom softwares. They are more applicable to large SME with more budget and resources. Smaller medium size companies should also be a good fit for such platforms.

Microsoft Power Apps

Next we have the other 2 mid tiered platforms, Power Apps by Microsoft and Filemaker by Apple. Power Apps platform is created by Microsoft as their products for low code softwares. This platform integrate very well with their existing line of business products MS Office that is the most used business software in the world. Power Apps user interfaces also mirrors MS Office hence most windows users will find it familiar. However Power Apps are the newest kid in the market. Microsoft recently ramped up their development for Power Apps, recognizing the demand in this sector. The platforms offers interesting functions and features which goes head on with the rest of more established low code platforms mentioned here. It will be interesting how this platforms develops.

Filemaker

Filemaker have been around creating low code database platform for more than 20 years. It works on a basis of middle ground to provide a complete solution of easy creation of user interfaces right to a complete database solution. It also ships with a powerful scripting language to allow complex automation function for custom software. In recent years, Filemaker has introduced a cloud version in collaboration with Amazon Web Services to provide a truly comprehensive solution for hosting custom business applications. Filemaker is a subsidiary of Apple Inc hence their products are mostly designed to work very with IOS and MacOS. However they also provide very good support for Windows platform. On top of these platform, Filemaker also has a web direct platform whereby solution can be access via web browsers, making it convenient to deploy business solution to all users. The only platforms that Filemaker doesn’t support now is Android which can be mostly solved by accessing via web direct. Filemaker is also fairly cheap compared to the competition. The highest self hosted price tier is US$19 per users per month with much more discount as the number of users increases. All plan ships with server, development and user license meaning that Filemaker simplify licenses as they recognize the large number of their users are internal staff of the company.With Filemaker, you can create simple application quickly but you can also get a senior developer to develop a extremely complex solution. I will not discuss in detail in this post, but there will be more examples in this blog site.

My relationship with Filemaker

Disclaimer, I have a lot of success developing business solutions in Filemaker. Hence my recommendation will always look into Filemaker as a first choice approach however I am also looking at other solutions for example Microsoft Power Apps and Salesforce Lightning. I think these platforms do offer their unique features more superior that Filemaker. As with all comparison of products, I believe that there is no perfect solution only the right solution for each needs. Hence I will stay as objective as possible throughout my articles. Most of the time I will only showcase the solutions i am working on and the relevant technologies. I will also highlight the pros and cons of each solution and other possibilities with other technologies. Again I am sure, there are many approaches to solving any problems. The important thing is how to resolve it the fastest way. And i will always recommend the best way one is most comfortable with.

Conclusion

I hope this post very briefly explain what is low code platforms and what are the available solutions in the market. This post is not meant to be technical but directed to business owners hence I deliberately write it in a way that does not include the detailed features of low code platforms. Last but not least, I wish to reiterate that any businesses, big or small will benefits from digitalization if done properly and correctly. With these low code platform, small medium companies should leverage on these technology to stay relevant to the market.‍