Some of the hottest and most popular tools on the internet are no-code platforms like Webflow, Airtable, and Mailchimp. But how did we get here? Let’s take a look at the history of no-code, and examine how early innovators like Excel and WordPress paved the way for the modern no-code solutions we use today.
But before we get into it, let’s quickly define no-code and low-code:
No-code: Building software without programming it or using code. No-code platforms often provide a visual way to build the front-end, like a drag-and-drop component interface. Logic and data-handling is specified using simple, human-understandable configuration options.
Low-code: Another way to quickly build software by providing building blocks to avoid redundant work and writing a lot of custom code. As a result, the audience for low-code tends to be developers and engineering professionals who want to build faster, with fewer resources.
The History of No-Code
Although computers had been used by business and governments since the 60s and 70s, the average person didn’t have much exposure until the 80s, when the personal computer (PC) boom really took off. Improvements in usability, especially the shift from command-line interfaces -- which all but demanded technical knowledge to operate -- to graphical user interfaces (GUIs) made it possible for the average person to use computers for work and play.
This was followed by a surge in business & productivity software, as companies like Microsoft and Lotus raced to develop applications for common business needs. Lotus released Lotus 1-2-3, a spreadsheet program that was the IBM PC’s first “killer app”, in 1983. At the same time, Microsoft was laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the Microsoft Office suite: releasing Word in 1983, Excel in 1985, and PowerPoint in 1987. On the more artistic side, Adobe puts out their first releases of flagship products Illustrator (1985) and Photoshop (1989).
All of a sudden, people could use computers to crunch data, write memos, create graphics -- all without knowing how to program. But what could be done was limited to the scope of the software and the narrow use cases it offered -- for example, you could only create graphic designs within Illustrator or text documents in Word.
Microsoft Excel was perhaps the closest one could get to “creating without code” and its incredible flexibility and versatility across use cases make it a contender for the first no-code business platform. Writing cell-based formulas, building models, and even fiddling with VBA macros were all ways for non-programmers to essentially create without code. It’s a foundational building block for business software and it also paved the way for future no-code products to come.
However, building a website generally required knowledge of HTML, and the average person’s technical skills on a computer were much more limited compared to now. A whole new category, the no-code website builder, sprang up to address this gap. “What You See Is What You Get” or WYSIWYG editors allowed users to visually create and edit websites in a form that resembles its published state, rather than fiddling around with HTML in a text editor. GeoCities launched in 1995, offering a no-code web editor where you could visually drag-and-drop site elements. By the time of its acquisition by Yahoo in 1999, GeoCities was the 3rd most visited site on the web.
More ways to build websites quickly followed. Macromedia released Dreamweaver in 1997, which provided both a visual WYSIWYG editor for no-code users and a HTML tab for those that knew code. LiveJournal and Blogger let users build a specific type of site (a blog) without any code at all. And in 2003, Automattic changed the game with the launch of WordPress, with its pre-built themes and configuration options helping the average person get a basic website online in just minutes. Squarespace, Wix, and Shopify all follow within the next 2-3 years, offering even more no-code options to get online.
Outside of websites, early innovators began creating no-code platforms for things like business software and email delivery. Quickbase got started in 1999 and by 2005 was offering a platform for business managers, rather than programmers, to create their own custom business applications on a database. Appian launched in 1999, providing a low-code platform for building enterprise applications. Mailchimp launched in 2001, allowing folks to send email programmatically, utilizing customizable templates and configuration instead of code.
Although this time period saw the start of many key players in no-code, like WordPress, Shopify and Mailchimp, there were still many limitations in what you could accomplish. Without code, many platforms relied on users selecting and customizing pre-built templates (like a Squarespace theme or Mailchimp email template), not allowing truly free-form creation. Functionality-wise, you were limited to what the platform could offer -- if you wanted your WordPress site to trigger an email, you had to hope there was an extension, plug-in or officially developed integration between two platforms to do it. If that didn’t exist, your only recourse would be to get a developer (or someone who could code), to build it for you.
As the internet continued to evolve, the Web 2.0 era saw the emergence of new product categories. Static websites turned into functional web apps and the smartphone explosion birthed a whole new world of mobile apps. Cloud computing, spurred on by innovators like Salesforce and Amazon, became the preferred way to deliver and use computer applications, with most web and mobile apps running on cloud platforms.
As the computing world transitioned to cloud and web apps, so too did business tools. In 2006, Google released Google Docs and Google Sheets, challenging Microsoft’s dominant position in productivity software. This proved to be a game-changer, as the apps’ cloud collaboration features simplified workflows and document sharing, and the lower price and enhanced usability led to many organizations adopting the Google Suite in the coming years. Google Sheets in particular inherits the crown as an all-purpose, flexible “no-code” business tool as users build everything from financial models to form applications within it.
The rapid changes in the web during this time period meant that a lot of the no-code activity focused on websites and web apps. Companies like Automaticc (Wordpress), Squarespace and Shopify, that offered no-code websites, all looked to add support for mobile sites and improve their platforms with integrations for payments, social media and other web functions.
“Low-code” platforms for developing business apps and automating workflows start to emerge. Mendix was founded in 2005, providing a low-code platform for developing web and mobile apps for businesses. Betty Blocks followed in 2010, providing an even simpler way for anyone to build business applications. Both provided a way for developers to jump in and write code, which revealed the fundamental weakness of no-code during that time: there was no way to add functionality beyond the no-code platform’s scope without writing code.
However, this was about to change, as APIs began to connect all parts of the internet together.
These days, the internet is more connected than ever. And the main way it’s connected is through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). Although web APIs got started in the early 2000s, with the unveiling of Salesforce, eBay, and Amazon APIs, it wasn’t until consumer social media like Flickr, Facebook and Twitter launched open APIs in the mid 2000s that APIs became ubiquitous. By 2010, APIs had become the connective tissue of the internet, allowing for disparate web platforms to interact, share data, and extend functionality.
Against this backdrop came a new breed of no-code platforms built to take advantage of the connected web, without the limitations of previous no-code offerings. Webflow launched in 2013, showcasing a visual designer that allowed for truly free-form creation without code -- while you could start with a Webflow template, you were no longer restricted by it. Functionally, Webflow promised that users could tap into everything offered by HTML5 and CSS3 without writing code. And Webflow’s API meant you could hook it up with other e-commerce platforms, or content management systems (CMS) to get even more out of it.
Compared to previous solutions, modern no-code platforms are much less limited in what you can create. APIs extend the core functionality of each platform to just about anything you want to do. Notion, created in 2012, is a no-code note-taking and collaboration app at its core. But through its API, you can turn what was just a document into a page that can send an email or schedule a meeting. Airtable, also created in 2012, started off with their hybrid spreadsheet/database, but its many API connections mean you can pull in Salesforce CRM functionality, Stripe payments functionality, Twitter social media, and much more -- in whatever you create.
This was the state of the world when we founded Internal in 2019. Our vision was to create a modern no-code platform focused on business applications at its core. Our experience building business tools at previous companies gave us a lot of insight into what Internal needed to be. No-code solutions hadn’t worked in the past as they didn’t have the flexibility or customization needed, and we were always running into functionality gaps that we’d have to address with code anyway. So when we created Internal, we knew that we had to create a flexible, free-form app builder, with all the customization options we’d missed in the past.
Most critically, we knew how things got built at modern companies - in a service-oriented way, centered around internal APIs and databases. We created Internal’s function editor to make it incredibly easy to weave in your internal APIs into what you build, making it possible for your internal tools to do anything your services can do. With every piece of data coming from your own APIs or databases, you can build in Internal exactly the same way you’d build in-house, with one crucial difference: you only need coders when you want to create a new function working with your APIs. Beyond that instance, non-coders can visually build apps extremely quickly using auto-generated or previously created functions. Our goal was to “uncap” the limits of no-code and create a platform that worked naturally with the way things are built today, with APIs.
Well, no one knows for sure, but we’re betting that the continued growth in no-code creators, community and content won’t stop. The average person is continuing to amass more technical knowledge, and we believe the lines between what’s considered “no-code” and “low-code” will continue to blur.
In the business world, Gartner predicts that more than half of medium to large enterprises will have adopted low-code application platforms by 2023. The COVID crisis is also accelerating no-code adoption. A 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%. In addition, KPMG finds that 100% of enterprises who have implemented a low- and no-code development platform have seen ROI through these initiatives.
With so many companies, innovators, and creators joining the no-code movement, we can’t wait to see what happens next.