Cloud-based drag-and-drop app building tools are described as digital LEGO, but what business benefits do they offer?
Can’t code? Doesn’t matter. If you want to build an app these days you can create the whole thing using a cloud-based service. Drag and drop. Click and scroll. And hey presto! You’ll have an app without ever seeing a line of code.
More and more companies are building their apps this way. Cloud-based creation tools such as BuildFire, Como, Mobile Roadie, Mendix, Fliplet, Kony, AppsBuilder and AppGyver are hugely popular
Yet there are critics, who defend the noble art of hand-coding. For example, Richard Fisher, senior mobile application developer at digital agency Blonde, calls cloud-based app creation tools “venus fly traps that lure you in with no hope of escaping once you are hooked”. Pascal Cans, product manager at Genymobile, says he’s seen many examples of companies “frustrated by the limits of toolkit developments”, leading to innovations being abandoned.
So are codeless drag-and-drop tools all they are cracked up to be? Let’s start with the benefits. The first plus is that these online tools cut costs. No developers to pay. Those folk can cost £600 a day.
The ability to create apps without knowing any code means non-technical staff can get involved
App building tools make the process faster. When cosmetics brand Kao built its sales-order entry app for salons it used Mendix to handle integration with its SAP system. Estimated build time was 30 days with hand-coding. With Mendix it fell to two days.
The ability to create apps without knowing any code means non-technical staff can get involved. This is a big deal. Matthew Baier, chief operating officer of built.io, which partnered with the app development tool company AppGyver, says: “If you come across an inefficient, manual or paper-based process and have an idea for a small app that could solve said problem, what are the chances of getting the app developed in an average business today? Hint: slim to none in most cases.
“However, if an individual or team can drag and drop their way to a mobile tool that addresses the problem without undermining the company’s IT policies, suddenly the situation becomes a win-win.”
Then there’s the issue of multiple devices. When developing an app you’ll need to test it across umpteen screen-size variations, manufacturers and operating systems. Will it work just as well on an Android 4.2 HTC phone, as a Galaxy phablet? Or an iPhone 6 Plus? And Windows phones?
When there is a software update or new phone launch you’ll be in a mad rush to update the app. But use an app builder like Kony and you can relax. Your app will be updated automatically and tested for validity on all popular devices. It’s a massive boon.
A cloud-tool will have an army of developers working on each module. Kony alone has hundreds of engineers, who’ve launched thousands of apps. Beat that.
Last: the simplicity of drag-and-drop tools means you can play around. Prototype all you want. Cathal McGloin, vice president mobile platforms at Red Hat, says: “Drag-and-drop tools promote idea generation, allowing organisations to test drive concepts. They can also help to kick-start a mobile initiative by allowing the organisation to generate some early successes that gain the attention and support of senior management.”
Convinced? Chris Beavis, chief executive of app consultancy Goldfinch Digital, expresses the views of the anti-camp. “It’s akin to the difference between building something with LEGO or carefully sculpting it from clay. Using Lego is fine if your building something simple or generic, but ultimately you’re still building with the same bricks as everyone else and the moment you need a different brick you’re stuck,” he says.
Another problem. You can’t fix bugs yourself. Yasir Ahmad of Kotikan warns: “The problem for developers is that there is little control over these online tools’ quality control. Will they have tested every possible permutation of features? Will it be worth their while fixing bugs that only a small number of developers are using? It puts you far more at the mercy of someone else’s code, bugs and all.”
Security is an area of contention. You’ll hear both sides claiming to be better. Ken Munro of ethical hackers Pen Test Partners warns security is opaque if you use a cloud-based tool. He says: “If the platform generates bad code, the user would not have a clue without testing it afterwards. Even if it is confirmed to be bad, there may not be a way to fix it without the platform itself being updated.”
Non-coders are the ones most in need of frameworks that get security right by default
App creators often demand excessive permissions on the phone, leading to reduction in vigilance. “This will get people into a mindset where they blindly accept permissions from apps and open themselves up to data loss,” says Mr Munro.
On the plus side, the restricted nature of drag-and-drop tools means staff can’t introduce their own vulnerabilities. Paco Hope, principal consultant at Cigital, says: “If rapid app development frameworks include only properly secure choices, then they make apps more secure. Non-coders are the ones most in need of frameworks that get security right by default.”
The drag-and-drop advocates have one big advantage. As more and more corporations embrace cloud-based tools, those platforms will grow in reliability and sophistication.
For simple apps there does seem to be a consensus that cloud-based tools are wonderful. The debate is now over whether the most complex apps can be done with low or zero-code too.
The future? The hunger for corporate apps means if drag and drop continues to boom it may simply free up coding engineers to work on the most difficult app challenges. An industry growing this fast can deliver prosperity for all.