No-code can mean different things. In a narrow sense, it is a method for software development, which uses platforms with a graphical interface and allows the creation of software applications without the need for knowledge or experience in traditional programming.
In a broad sense, no-code is a philosophy based on the belief that everyone should be able to realize their ideas and creative potential through information technology, without significant technical obstacles to doing so.
No-code as a philosophy
If we consider the broad context of the term no-code, we could assume that it is the same philosophy which led to the creation of GUI operating systems. Although the earliest examples of a graphical interface can be found as early as the 1960s in the theories of Vannevar Bush and the works of Douglas Engelbart (Britannica), the first mass market computer to be controlled via a graphical interface and a mouse was Mac – launched in 1984. Windows 1.0x appeared the following year.
No-code as a software for development
If we take a look at the more specific definition, a no-code development platform should:
- Allow building a user interface
- Allow data management
- Allow business logic management
- Not require writing code
If we accept these four conditions as the minimum requirements for a platform to be considered no-code, then the first software that meets these requirements is spreadsheet software.
The first spreadsheet program available on a microcomputer was VisiCalc, released in 1979. Then came Lotus 1-2-3, an IBM product from 1982. And in 1985, the first version of Excel was released, ironically - for Mac. Two years later came the second version, running on Windows.
The important milestones
Regardless of which definition we will use, in order to pinpoint the birth of no-code, there are certain events that are extremely important in the development of the trend. In 1982, James Martin published his 15th book on the software industry, Developing Applications Without Programmers. In the preface, he states:
"The number of programmers available per computer is shrinking so fast that most computers in the future must be put to work at least in part without programmers.”
This is one of the main driving forces of the no-code movement: the need to "democratize" information technology. The goal is difficult to achieve, and it has taken several decades and numerous incremental improvements to reach today's level of development.
Graphical programming languages
One of the paths the IT industry took from a very early stage, was the development of visual (also known as graphical) programming languages. They are programming "languages" or development environments in which software is manipulated graphically, in lieu of using text commands. They could be considered as rudimentary no-code tools. As I already mentioned, back in the 1960s and 1970s people started experimenting with the graphical representation of logic through systems like Pygmalion and GRaIL (Bubble blog). In fact, VPLs represent yet another step in the transition from the binary code of machines to the abstract way of thinking of man.
In 1991, Visual Basic appeared. Though its main goal is to facilitate the work of a programmer, it is not a VPL per se. This software can be most accurately described by the term "integrated development environment". While not a genuine no-code technology, Visual Basic represents an important paradigm shift that was an indispensable step for the future development of no-code.
Although visual programming languages did find long-lasting niche applications (for example, in some aspects of video game development), they never succeeded in displacing standard programming. The main reason for can probably be found in the fact, that in order to create complex software in this type of development environment, you need to create schemas and diagrams, which are far more complex than plain programming code. At the same time, the most popular VEPs nowadays are associated with teaching children and because of this they have acquired the dubious reputation of tools unworthy of serious software developers.
The other path of development, which is nowadays often acknowledged as the "official beginning" of the no-code revolution, is the introduction of spreadsheet software. Although VisiCalc appeared as early as 1979, in fact spreadsheets gained worldwide popularity through Excel (launched 6 years later), which even today - despite the presence of numerous competitors - is still “the gold standard” for this type of software.
And how does Excel meet the four requirements for no-code software? Even in its simplest form, using functions such as merge/divide cells and data validation, it is possible to create a rudimentary but functional user interface. The more sophisticated form controls allow you to build buttons, sliders, and other elements that overlay table cells.
Managing data using Excel is also possible, although it is not the most suitable software for this purpose. Business logic management is one of the most powerful aspects of Excel with almost endless possibilities: in addition to more than 450 "built-in" formulas, you can create custom ones, as well as run simulations, execute loops to solve optimization problems, etc. Thus, Excel fulfills all the minimum requirements for a no code development platform.
The Internet and web pages
In March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee wrote his first proposal for the creation of a worldwide information network (WorldWideWeb). Its prototype was developed in 1991, and in 1993 CERN published the source code of the network with a free license, making it available to everyone. The popularity of the Internet grew at breakneck speed, and only a year later, the World Wide Web had about 10,000 servers and 10 million users.
At the end of the same year, the web hosting service Geo Cities appeared, which in 1995 launched its service for personal web pages. Essentially, this service was a no-code solution for creating web pages. It quickly gained a huge popularity and user base and allowed millions of Internet users to create their own personal web pages without the need for establishing the hardware infrastructure, nor requiring any knowledge of programming or web design. In 1999, the company was acquired by Yahoo! Corporation and soon after lost its popularity. (The service was finally shut down worldwide in 2009, remaining available only in Japan until 2019.)
In 2003, Wordpress came along and to a certain extent filled the gap left by GeoCities. The platform was created for managing and organizing data and at first was used almost exclusively for personal blogs. Its popularity has skyrocketed since and WordPress dominates the market, with around 43% of all sites built on this platform (W3Techs).
Between 2004-2006 several competing platforms for building websites and content management emerged. Three of them stood out and eventually gained a sizeable market share (W3Techs: Usage trends; W3Techs - Market share;). These are Squarespace, Joomla and Wix.
In 2013, Webflow - a software that allows visual development of websites - was launched on the market. It initially offered limited functionality, but quickly evolved, and in 2017 already had most of the features it offers today. Currently, Webflow is not just one of the leaders in the field of no-code website development, but also part of the vanguard of the movement. The company constantly challenges prevailing paradigms and pushes the boundaries of what is possible.
No-code and e-commerce
E-commerce is an increasingly important part of the global economy, with online sales in the US surpassing store sales for the first time in 2019 (CNBC). And the lockdowns imposed in most countries during the Covid-19 pandemic further cemented online commerce as a method of shopping for most households.
In 2006, Shopify was launched. It is, in a broad sense, a no-code tool since it enables vendors to create an e-store without the need to write code. Thus, the platform opens huge opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses. At the same time, however, it does not allow direct manipulation of the data, the CMS and the front-end with the freedom which true no-code platforms provide.
The e-commerce sector and the no-code ideology are still in a very early stage of courtship. Although there are several platforms (Webflow, WiX, Square Space, Editor X, etc.) that allow the creation of e-stores without code and with full control over the public part, the data and (partially) the business logic, they still meet only a very small range of the enormous demands and complexities of an e-store. Therefore, at this stage, they cannot yet compete with systems like Magento, Open Cart and others, but we believe that day will come very soon.
It is important to note that while no-code platforms are not yet ready to cover most of the requirements of an e-store with more than 200-300 products, they are perfect for content creators. These platforms give creators - bloggers, vloggers, trainers, instructors, foodies, etc. – the power to run their own store and monetize the content they make without needing to write a single line of code. In one of our next articles, we will look at some of the endless possibilities for entrepreneurs and content creators.
No-code e-mail marketing
It may sound strange today, but the first e-mail was sent back in 1971 - long before the advent of the Internet. (Wow! E-mail is more than half a century old!) Just a few years later (in 1978), a resourceful advertiser sent out the first e-mail campaign, which (with an audience of just 400 people) generated $13 million in sales.
For the first two decades or so, e-mail was used primarily by universities, and as a means of corporate communication. On July 4, 1996, that changed with the launching of Hotmail’s first free web-based e-mail service, which created a means of direct communication with 20 million Internet users in the United States. Marketers immediately took advantage of this opportunity, and e-mail quickly established itself as a viable marketing channel.
Initially, e-mails were just text on the screen, and little attention was paid to typography or design, because every small change had to be made through HTML code. Little by little, the providers of this service expanded the possibilities – adding new fonts, sizes, the ability to embed images and files. However, the options for creating beautiful e-mail design remained very limited for the average user.
In 2001, MailChimp appeared, the company's goal being to provide small businesses with an alternative to the expensive e-mail software used by large corporations at the turn of the century. The company offered an e-mail marketing tool that allows managing e-mail lists and designing beautiful marketing campaigns through a simple drag-and-drop editor. This marked the beginning of a new era for e-mail marketing.
Workflow automation and business logic
In order to complete any task, one follows a certain work process. The larger the organization, the more complex this process becomes and the higher the risk of making mistakes. At the same time, it often consists mostly of rote repetitive tasks.
Workflow automation encompasses the design, execution and automation of processes based on predefined business logic. Very often it involves the automatic forwarding of data and files between people and systems. The goal is to improve efficiency and productivity in the organization, to save time, to reduce errors and, of course to increase employee satisfaction.
In 2012, the first no-code software products for workflow automation and business logic appeared: Zapier, Airtable and Bubble. They enable the integration of various software applications, systems, and databases, as well as the development of custom applications with enormous application potential.
In 2014, Forrester coined the term low-code. They define it as follows: "Low-code platforms enable the rapid development of business applications with minimal programming and minimal initial investment in software setup, training and deployment.
In 2016, Notion appeared - software for organizing and managing projects and data, followed by Integromat (Make) - a direct competitor of Zapier, which offers much more functionality though it also comes with a steeper learning curve.
Nowadays there are so many no-code tools on the market that, in order to do any kind of overview, they have to be grouped by different criteria. There are, for example, no-code tools developed using no-code technology: in other words, no-code to the second and third degree. There are no-code tools that implement artificial intelligence and machine learning. Almost any problem can be solved by the appropriate no-code solution.
There are various criteria, according to which platforms can be classified, with the most useful approach probably being classification by application domains. For example: web development, e-mail marketing, data analysis, e-commerce, workflow automation, etc.
With new phenomena comes new terminology. First – of course – comes the term “no-code” itself. In fact, it is not particularly precise, because there is an awful lot of code behind the development tools! The term was chosen to show that this type of platform avoids everything bad that we associate with traditional development: elitist, expensive, slow, and often infuriating.
Civil developer, visual developer, no-coder: these three terms are used interchangeably to refer to "regular people" (i.e. people who are not programmers) developing software using no-code platforms.
Visual development: building apps, bots, websites, workflow automation, integrations and data visualization using visual/no-code tools.
Are SaaS and No code the same?
Very often SaaS and No Code are used interchangeably. But are they really the same thing? In fact, they are not. Software as a service is a business model, while no-code is an ideology and a not-so-new but rapidly growing movement.
In the SaaS model, the software is offered as a subscription service. For example, Microsoft's Office 365 offers the latest version of Microsoft's office suite, along with several additional services. This service is SaaS but is not no-code. On the other hand, a huge number of no-code platforms function as SaaS.
So, it's probably most accurate to say that no-code and SaaS can be aspects of the same software, and almost all no-code platforms are based on a SaaS business model, but not all SaaS businesses are platforms for no-code development.
No-code: a long-term trend or just a fad?
No matter whether we choose the broader or the more specific context to define the beginning of no-code, this phenomenon has more than 30 years of history. Therefore, it has long passed the definition of an ephemeral fad. With the latest improvements and ever-expanding capabilities of various platforms, it seems that this development method is the future of information technology. And just as today it is nigh on impossible for most of us to imagine exchanging our convenient GUI systems for a command line OS, we think that visual development will soon become the gold standard of the industry.
Does this mean that the programming profession will disappear? Of course not! After all, no-code tools need to be created and maintained by skilled programmers!
No-code in the future
What can we expect in the near future?
Very soon we expect an exponential development of the no-code/low-code niche. Development platforms will become increasingly more complex and will allow the average person to create an ever-wider variety of software solutions for their business.
If we divide our expectations by sectors, then in web development we expect a significant improvement and expansion of no-code tools that offer gated content (i.e., a personalized experience for visitors to a certain website), no-code management of business logic (such as Zapier and Webflow Logic), as well as significant improvement and expansion of the capabilities of no-code e-commerce platforms.
What is our prediction for the more distant future?
In the long term (the next 5 years), we assume that no-code solutions will cover 99% of the needs of corporate and marketing sites (now they cover about 90%). E-commerce solutions will expand to the point where it will be possible to "build" stores of bigger sizes (10-50k products) with implemented business logic, user levels, complex discount groups, etc. without the need to write any code.
We stop at this point for today. As you have seen for yourself, we firmly believe in the enormous potential of no-code technology. Therefore, this article will remain a work-in-progress for a long time to come, and we will return to it periodically to reflect changes that have occurred in the meantime.
No-code is the future, and we can't wait to see it!
P.S. We are very impressed that you read this entire article to its very end! If you are as interested in learning even more about no-code technologies as we are, subscribe to our newsletter to be always in the know.