Low-code development platforms trace their roots back to Fourth-Generation Programming Language (4GL), a concept developed from the 1970s through the 1990s. These languages refer to non-procedural and high-level specification languages and include support for database management, report generation, mathematical optimization, GUI development, and web development. As time progressed, and with more abstraction and more power, several 4GL vendors appeared in the software market, including Oracle (Forms), Progress, Clipper, and Informix.
Then came 2003 and Eric Evans, a popular programmer and thought leader in software design and domain modeling. He coined the concept of Domain-Driven Design in a book of the same title. This methodology led to the rapid evolution of hybrid development platforms, which, in 2014, Gartner and Forrester termed “low-code platforms.” These platforms combined the simplicity of graphical interfaces and the power of programming languages to enhance user experience.
Today’s low-code products cover nearly every domain, from email builders, CRMs, and web designers to workflow and prototyping tools, and even AI. But the concept itself is not new, in fact, it’s been around for more than 3 decades.
So we’ve picked out some of our favorites. Enjoy a short tour down the annuals of low-code.
Microsoft Excel 3.0 Multiple Sheets (1990)
From its market launch in 1987, Microsoft Excel quickly became the king of low-code tools and was the master of must-have tools for nearly any commercial business since the 1990s.
Before Microsoft Excel existed, there was Microsoft Multiplan. Multiplan was created to compete against Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3, which were the popular spreadsheet apps at the time. Although it was released for a variety of computing platforms, (including the Apple II, CP/M, MS-DOS, Macintosh, Xenix, Commodore 64), it never reached critical mass in the market as many criticized the addition of having an ‘unstructured data pile’ in the organization. They also considered the heavy usage of Excel as a potential security vulnerability as thousands of Excel files containing important business information remained on user devices and in mailboxes—largely unprotected.
But for all their concerts, Excel refused to die and in 1993, Microsoft released Excel v5.0 for Windows, including VBA (Visual Basic for Applications), aka Macros. This opened up almost unlimited possibilities in automating repetitive tasks for crunching numbers, process automation, and presenting data for businesses.
So after 33 years—36, if you count Multiplan’s lifespan—Excel continues to survive and thrive. From simple processes such as organizing daily jobs to grocery shopping lists to wedding planning to solving complex business problems — Excel is effortlessly easy and an excellent tool.
Microsoft Visual Basic 3.0
The original Visual Basic (also called Classic Visual Basic) was Microsoft’s third-generation event-driven programming language known for its Component Object Model (COM) programming model. The first version of visual basic, VB 1.0, was announced in 1991 and was inspired by a beta generator developed by Alan Cooper at Tripod. It was finally declared legacy in 2008.
Microsoft and Cooper developed it into a programmable form system for Windows 3.0, under the code name Ruby (no relation to the later Ruby programming language). However, Tripod did not include a programming language at all, and when Microsoft combined Ruby with the Basic language, Visual Basic was born. The Ruby interface generator provided the "visual" part of Visual Basic, and this was combined with the "EB" Embedded BASIC engine designed for Microsoft's abandoned "Omega" database system. Ruby also provided the ability to load dynamic link libraries containing additional controls (then called "gizmos"), which later became the VBX interface.
It was finally unveiled at Windows World 1991 in Atlanta. It opened the world of computer programming to developers of all skill levels — from hobbyists to professionals — by enabling them to quickly build and run applications based on Microsoft’s Windows operating system.
See what Bill Gates had to say about it way back when.
Did you know? 1991 was also the year when Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) announced its AMD 386 microprocessor, which was developed to offer direct competition to Intel's 386 chips rather than a secondary source of x86 processors. This paved the way for long-term competition and the introduction of the first notebooks by many PC vendors. It was also the year when 14.4 kbps modems were introduced. They were pretty fast too, taking 9 minutes 15 seconds to download a 1MB file.
Vermeer Technologies originally developed MS Frontpage in the mid-1990s. Microsoft then purchased FrontPage from Vermeer in 1996 for $130m and released its software version soon after.
However, it didn’t last long as the internet was new back then and hence, it was designed as the editor for Internet Explorer - which was the only browser that could render pages that used FrontPage Server Extensions correctly. These Server Extensions were used to generate basic interactive content, and without them, the sites couldn’t function as intended, often causing many users to only use hosting companies that would offer that compatibility.
The final version of FrontPage was released in 2003.
Want to go down memory lane? Here's a video of building in MS Frontpage
2007 was a busy year for tech - Apple launched the iPhone, Facebook hit 20 million users; Android was released, and Airbnb was founded - so if you missed the launch of Yahoo’s Pipes, you weren’t the only one.
Pipes grew to prominence primarily because it crossed a boundary. It was a hosted service that let you remix feeds and create new data mashups in a visual programming environment. The name of the service pays tribute to Unix pipes, which let programmers do astonishingly clever things by making it easy to chain simple utilities together on the command line. It quickly gained the appeal of hardcore nerds, even though it brought a relatively simple interface and made visual, conceptual data stream management accessible to anyone.
It was one of the first software solutions to incorporate APIs. The result was an online tool that pulled in data from various sites and web apps, then set up rules and processes tied to that data. While it mostly revolved around data aggregation and manipulation, it served as a template for later automation services. Then, on a sunny Wednesday in September 2015, Yahoo! Pipes was shut down.
With the release of Turbo Pascal 1.0 in November 1983, Borland started its journey into the world of development environments and tools. However, in 1995 Borland revived its version of Pascal when it introduced the rapid application development environment named Delphi - turning Pascal into a visual programming language. Delphi described itself as “the only development tool that provides the Rapid Application Development (RAD) benefits of visual component-based design, the power of an optimising native-code compiler and a scalable client/server solution.”
Delphi 1 was released for the 16-bit Windows v3.1, and was originally targeted towards students, amateurs and individual professionals. It used the Delphi programming language, which is a dialect of Object Pascal.
Delphi was inherently very dynamic for its time. You could fire up the IDE, load the source of a visual form connected to (e.g. a database) and see and navigate records fetched from the database live in the designer. The development environment was quick and practical to work in, and you had access to the source for debugging. However, when the web-based application revolution came, Delphi’s competition came in the form of the LAMP stack, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Bonus reading: Danny Thorpe, one of the original Delphi 1 team members, recounts the effort that went into the research and development behind the creation of Delphi 1. You can read the thread here or watch this product walkthrough.
The problem with yesterday’s low-code tools was a primary focus on composition and often ignored the other steps in the software development lifecycle, such as planning, debugging, testing, implementation, and deployment. As a result, publishing low-code software (that wasn’t tested properly) could have added complexity and time to the development process more often than not.
Fast forward to today, where many low-code tools provide many advantages to the developer. However, the key metric is still speed-to-value, improving agility and reducing the complexity of the application development process.
Examples of today’s tools cover everything from eCommerce (Shopify), website builders (Webflow), payments (stripe) and many more. Some have infused artificial intelligence into their platforms and even offer innovative features such as integration with semi-structured and unstructured data sources, or “next-best action” advice for various business workflow scenarios. This is quite a jump from where it all started way back when.
While most modern platforms make working in a specific domain very easy, modern development often requires working with systems and concepts that do not form part of the main use-case the tool was designed for. But not all….
Born in the financial markets in 2003, Linx is part of a new breed of low-code developer tools. Built for backends, it is a general all-purpose platform with no limitations on the technology it can connect to and uses visual abstractions of programming concepts to make building complex logic easy and maintainable. By sticking to generic programming concepts, Linx has created a unique approach that addresses many of typical low-code platforms’ common pitfalls and limitations.
Linx fills the gaps when domain-specific low-code tools hit their limits, allowing you to combine your business logic with the services of your choice. And as per the new age of development, it also includes deployment to a production environment with built-in management and monitoring.
Well, no one knows for sure, and certainly, no one would have guessed that a global pandemic would accelerate the adaptation to new technologies such as low-code. However, a recent KPMG survey found that since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the number of executives naming low- and no-code development platforms as their most important automation investment has nearly tripled, from 10% to 26%.
With so many companies, innovators, and creators joining the movement, we can’t forget the past, but we can’t wait to see the future.