Sergey Nivens - Fotolia
Alpha Software has delivered a low-code development platform that allows inexperienced programmers to create and deploy mobile applications that can be integrated into enterprise workflows.
Called Alpha TransForm, the platform allows citizen developers and internal developers tied to the business side of user organizations to turn paper forms into digitized drag-and-drop mobile forms. The digitized forms can be customized using a built-in, Java-like programing language developed by Dan Bricklin, CTO of Alpha, based in Burlington, Mass.
The idea for the product came from the steady stream of user requests for the ability to quickly create forms for data capture that could be customized by someone who was not technical and that could be run offline, Bricklin said.
"We are in this opportune time now where so many companies are digitizing what used to be on paper, which is when you get the biggest jump in productivity," Bricklin said. "Previously, the cost to write an app that digitized complex forms was too high, and the benefits of taking a PDF and marking it up on an iPad just weren't there."
While the low-code development platform is designed with citizen developers in mind, Alpha officials realized they would have to create something with which IT would also be happy. Additionally, they needed to provide some measure of control over the applications being developed.
"IT needed something they could recommend when LOBs [line-of-business managers] would ask them for a system that could take their data and put it into the system of record," Bricklin said. "More importantly, they need to know the APIs that give them permission to gain access and control."
Glen Schild, proprietor of GJ Stats, a U.K.-based developer specializing in mobile applications development, has a number of customers with workers out in the field who heavily depend on a variety of digitized forms to collect, analyze and send information back to servers in their respective home offices.
"I have one client with surveyors out in the field looking at ecological damage from oil spills," Schild said. "They have to take photos and document everything about the incident. This [TransForm] can push all that information back directly to an SQL table. Then, they can talk to their line managers about what course of action they need to take. It has sped up the whole process," he said.
Schild added the TransForm Programming Language (TPL) has given him an opportunity to offer much improved or new functionality for his client's field workers, which, in some cases, assists those clients in managing their business.
No-code, low-code development market surge
Analysts believe the low-code, no-code market will see double-digit growth over the next several years. In a recent report, Gartner researchers predicted, by 2024, low-code application development would account for more than 65% of application development activity; 75% of low-code application development efforts will be limited to small- to moderate-scale projects supporting nonmission-critical workloads; and75% of larger enterprises will be using at least four low-code development tools for IT application development and citizen development initiatives.
Jason WongVice president and analyst, Gartner
What is fueling this growth is the rapid modernization of the underlying technologies, primarily the cloud and the accompanying application development tools. IT organizations realize now applications created using platforms like TransForm can help address gaping holes in the supply of applications across an enterprise, particularly mobile apps. Such platforms also free up IT professionals to focus on more complex application development projects.
"There is big demand being driven primarily by the business units," said Jason Wong, a vice president and analyst at Gartner. "IT now realizes there is this new generation of low-code tools they need to look at. What helps a company like Alpha Software here is the big skills gap in mobile apps."
An increasing number of citizen development initiatives have cropped up recently, some of which started off as shadow IT projects, Wong said. But low-code offerings now bring these programmers out of the shadows, allowing them to contribute in a more legitimate way that could prove beneficial to IT and the overall business.
Wong cautioned, however, that the more conservative IT shops might be leery about some inexperienced programmers using the platform's built-in language, the TransForm Programming Language, to create applications that are poorly constructed or lack proper security. He advised that, in some cases, IT professionals will need to work closely with citizen developers on the more complex applications.
"The downside [of the TPL] is there is learning and knowledge transfer that must happen," Wong said. "It depends on the pool of talent you have and how willing you are to invest in citizen developers. Citizen developers already have full-time jobs they are dealing with," he said.
But citizen-developer-driven projects are the new reality with which IT will have to deal. Citizen developers do not necessarily have to gain IT permission to begin a development project, and many have their own budgets, separate from IT's budget, to fund them.
"IT can't remain this command-and-control organization on anything related to information and technology," Wong said.
While there is ample room for growth in the market, there is also ample competition. Gartner is tracking some 250 vendors with low-code or no-code offerings. One of those large competitors is Microsoft with its PowerApps, its new replacement for InfoPath Forms, which allows Excel users to build applications. Another is Google with its web-based App Maker. On the low-end, there is Quick Base that targets business users in small and medium-sized companies, as well as large enterprises.
TransForm is currently available as a monthly subscription in three versions: Free for up to five users, Deploy Now and Enterprise Rollout. Customers must contact the company for pricing.