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Why building an app is now child’s play

“If a police officer goes to another city or remote area for work, members should be able to locate the nearest police station and find other members. They should also be able to seek assistance,” he said.

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Graphic: Mint

But there was one problem. He did not know how to code. This is where tech platform Appy Pie helped him successfully complete this task. Christened Hum Panchee Ek Daal Ke, Sirohi’s app now has about 6,000 members.

The Appy Pie platform allows anyone to build an app by simply dragging and dropping features without any prior coding knowledge, and hence it is known as a ‘no-code’ platform. Such platforms aid users with visual tools to build apps, chatbots, dashboards, mobile and web apps, and even content management platforms. Appy Pie also helps with publishing these apps on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store. In short, such platforms have made building and publishing an app nearly a child’s play.

“Maintenance is an issue as every now and then, Google and Apple change guidelines. Users need to rebuild the app in sync with the latest guidelines and republish the app. Features for security and data compliance are also built into the platform. Every year, we do a vulnerability assessment,” explained Abhinav Girdhar, chief executive officer (CEO), Appy Pie.

Sirohi is just one of the 10 million registered users of Appy Pie whose customers include universities, research firms, and even media companies. ICFAI Business School, Asianet, and ManipalCigna Health Insurance are some of the organizations in India that have built apps using Appy Pie’s no-code platform.

No-code is aimed at users who may want to build apps but lack the ability to write code manually. But there are other tech-savvy individuals and professionals in startups and mid-sized businesses who may know how to code but do not have the time to build apps or tech platforms. Such people can use ‘low-code’ platforms where minimal coding is involved.

Kissflow’s low-code platform, for instance, is being used by several startups and large enterprises including local firms such as Zomato, CaratLane, and Reliance Nippon Life Insurance Co, and global companies including Domino’s Pizza, and PepsiCo.

Besides individuals, startups and enterprises, low-code and no-code (LCNC) platforms are also being used by governments. The Indian government’s ServicePlus, an electronic service delivery framework, is built on the LCNC platform. Developed by the National Informatics Centre, it has been adopted by 33 states and union territories. With over 2,300 e-services available, lakhs of applications are received, processed, and delivered every month, its website states.

Data from research firms and industry bodies underline its rapid adoption. Research and advisory firm Gartner predicts that LCNC platforms will be used in more than 65% of application developments worldwide by next year. The global LCNC development platform market is all set to produce $187 billion in revenue and account for more than 65% of all application development activity by 2030, according to TeamLease Digital, a professional services platform. Already, India has 150 LCNC startups, a majority of which are bootstrapped. According to industry body Nasscom, the LCNC market generated about $400 million in India in FY21. India has the potential to generate a little over $4 billion in revenue within two years, which will account for 10% of the global market.

The cost factor

There are two kinds of LCNC platforms: one is on-premise and the other is cloud. Many LC platforms charge for the number of apps, number of users, and consumption. Appy Pie, for instance, charges 699 to 1,599 per month for basic services. If the app downloads exceed 2,000, additional charges are levied.

On Kissflow, a startup will have to spend $4,000 a month for an app with 100 users, said Kaushik Roy, head of India sales at the company. “Adoption depends on the customer. They start with no-code, and as the number of processes and workflow increases, they start moving to low-code,” he added. “We have separate programmes for startups and enterprises. 70% of the adoption has come from digital native companies. A lot more approval is required in BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance). We have seen a 50-60% adoption rate of low-code in BFSI. In manufacturing and retail, adoption has been 30-40%,” Roy informed.

The game changer

Let’s take a closer look at what’s in it for enterprises and startups.

Traditional development, according to a September report by TeamLease Digital, requires a dedicated team of software developers with strong programming skills. However, LCNC platforms require minimal programming skills. Any user can develop customized apps. Much of the routine development can be done with LCNC, reducing the need for bulky IT teams, speeding up business application development and round-the-clock availability, said experts. Many believe that LCNC is a “game changer” for the tech industry, indeed startups.

“Startups use LCNC platforms to get to the minimum viable product (MVP) stage when they are testing a new idea. They build an MVP, pitch it before venture capitalists for funds, and then enhance it. LCNC is good for demo and proof of concepts,” Sandeep Koul co-founder and head of product at Whoozbuying, a startup building two LC platforms, said.

Enterprises, particularly BFSI companies, are perhaps more eager to partner technology giants rather than the smaller LCNC companies.

“We are seeing a growing demand for low-code solutions across sectors and industries, with BFSI and retail being the leading adopters,” Charoo Singh, country head of Business Applications at Microsoft India, said.

For instance, when Piramal Capital & Housing Finance Ltd wanted to set up a centralized loan origination and management system, it reached out to Microsoft to help build a low-code infrastructure, said Singh.

HDFC Bank said this month that it will use Microsoft’s LCNC capabilities to set up an App Innovation and Automation Factory to help it migrate, modernize and transform its application portfolio. The aim is to build a bank of the future. “At the heart of this is the ability to offer a neo banking experience to our customers that is second to none. We are doing this by investing in proprietary intellectual property as well through tie-ups like these,” said Ramesh Lakshminarayanan, group head of Information Technology and chief information officer, HDFC Bank.

Low-code platforms are being used by some companies to migrate old applications that are heavy and built in old programming languages. For that, moving them into light applications can be done faster with low-code platforms, said Kaushik Roy.

Low-code platforms, meanwhile, work in tandem with other solutions. For instance, one can have an app built on a low-code platform and integrate it with enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) solutions.

The AI play

A majority of LCNC platforms allow for the development and deployment of powerful artificial intelligence (AI) applications. Moreover, unlike conventional AI app development that takes six to 12 months, no-code AI platforms can facilitate development, testing and deployment in a matter of days or weeks. This shortens the time to market products and services.

“I created a working demo of an app using Flutterflow in 2 hours and got a major deal. They asked for some changes and I quickly did that in front of them,” Ganesh S.P., a senior engineering associate at Atlassian, an Australian software company, said in a 15 January tweet. Flutterflow is a low-code app building platform.

AI-based code assistants—such as Microsoft GitHub Copilot, OpenAI ChatGPT, and Amazon Code Whisperer—offer a fresh approach to empower both non-technical users and programmers, according to Kashyap Kompella, AI analyst and chief executive of industry research firm RPA2AI.

Code assistants are code writing solutions. They use a natural language processing (NLP) model trained on billions of lines of open source codes. The assistants can understand both programming languages and the human language (English), which enables them to provide suggestions on next line of codes.

Kompella believes that the very same technology that has led to the development of “powerful pre-trained generative AI models such as Dall-e for images, GPT-3 for content, and ChatGPTfor content generation in a chat interface, can also be used to generate working code for user interfaces, mobile apps, and websites in different programming languages when trained on large datasets of coding samples. As many early ChatGPT examples show, it can be used to debug code as well”.

Developers redundant?

Automation can kill jobs. Will LCNC platforms make developers redundant?

Not really. LCNC platforms do not herald the demise of developers since there will always be a high demand for skilled programmers who can customise software. Besides, LCNC frameworks themselves are built on actual coding languages—like PHP, Python, and Java.

In fact, TeamLease Digital sees a growing demand for talent. “With digital transformation happening across industries, demand for specialized skills like LCNC has created new opportunities for budding developers,” a report from the company stated. This will create new jobs in India for non-traditional coders. “LCNC”, it concludes, “has already started making its place in the IT world and there’s no stopping that”.

The gaps

To be sure, LCNC does have its limitations. According to a March 2022 Nasscom report, most LCNC platforms are more suited to larger enterprises rather than small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Lack of training on usage of LCNC solutions and data security concerns are major inhibitors to adoption, the report adds.

Nasscom believes that LCNC adoption across large enterprises will continue to be led by the IT services companies. They will be the consulting, system integration (SI) and implementation partners for large LCNC providers. Adoption by smaller businesses, on the other hand, will continue to be dominated by direct partnership with smaller LCNC providers that offer “better pricing and more customizable solutions”.

Sanchit Vir Gogia, founder and chief analyst of Greyhound Research, believes that while most companies claim to be citizen development platforms (meant for business users with no technical skill sets), in real life, that’s far from reality. “While the likes of SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft are attempting to embed these platforms as part of their core offering, the adoption is still primarily limited to the IT teams. The current use of these platforms is limited to basic tasks and functions and not currently used to create end-to-end applications like CRM and others,” he said.

Sandeep Koul of Whoozbuying cautions that it is important to have control over the intellectual property, “which is the Git repository or bit code of the app”. To enhance the app and expand its features, users need the source code. “But one of the cons of using low-code platforms is that users building an app don’t have access to the codes,” he said. They should consider platforms that give them the flexibility of having the codes when they want.

If LCNC platforms find a way to circumvent such limitations, the path ahead could be easier for individuals and businesses looking to build apps fast.

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