A Brief History of No-code
Everything you need to know about the evolution of no-code
Once upon a time, on a warm summer afternoon in a land far away — just kidding.
No-code is not a new phenomenon and the concept has existed for a long time.
However, in recent years, a concoction of ubiquitous connectivity and our proclivity for productivity has fueled the expansion of the SaaS industry like never before.
Software is eating the world — for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and folks like you and me are lovin’ it.
And this love for software, coupled with advancements in technology and a growing desire to build independent, profitable businesses, has fueled the current no-code movement (if it’s really a movement).
So how far back do no-code tools go?
It all started in 1985
Microsoft released the first version of Excel in 1985 (interestingly for Mac), followed by the Windows version in 1987.
Even though Excel’s arch-enemy, Google Sheets, has marched past it in terms of adoption by embracing the cloud, Excel expertise is a sought-after skill, especially in the fields of financial and data analysis.
Excel’s power-users still swear by it for data manipulation, analyses, and visualization — all without writing a line of code.
However, Excel is largely used offline as its online counterpart has limited functionality and doesn’t appeal to Excel nerds.
No-code comes online
In 2003, the poster child of the Internet, Wordpress, kickstarted the ability to build websites without code. Even today, about 35% of the world’s websites are powered by Wordpress.
Soon after in 2004, Shopify came along and empowered the world to create beautiful online stores.
The Internet was still in its early days but Wordpress and Shopify paved the way for a generation of entrepreneurs who built all types of online businesses — from blogs and niche e-commerce stores to dev shops building themes and plugins for both Wordpress and Shopify.
Google Sheets is the #1 no-code tool
Google Sheets is the top app on Zapier as well as on Integromat (where I lead growth). Both Zapier (2012) and Integromat (2016) are leading the no-code automation space with their respective visual interfaces to integrate apps and automate workflows.
While Airtable (2012), Notion (2016), and Coda (2019) have become the darlings of database tools in the no-code space, there are several newer entrants like Softr and MintData that are worth exploring.
That said, Google Sheets is still at the forefront of the no-code movement (again, if it’s really a movement). So much so, that other no-code tools are built on top of Google Sheets.
Sheety turns a spreadsheet into an API, Sheet2Site allows one to make a website using just a spreadsheet, and Glide — whose popularity is soaring — lets you create an app from just a Google Sheet, all without code.
If you’re unfamiliar with these tools, just let that sink in for a minute.
No-code on top of no-code
Yes, no-code tools mentioned above have been built atop the number one no-code tool — Google Sheets — using code. Meta much?
It will be really interesting to see no-code tools built on top of these second-order no-code tools.
Wait, it’s already happening!
Internal tools — those that are used within an organization to track activities, collate and visualize data, or just push the pedal on productivity — are already being built on Glide.
Stacker, a second-order no-code tool, allows one to build a good-looking customer-facing portal, complete with user accounts—all with existing data from Airtable or Salesforce.
Going back to Wordpress, it is fascinating that more than fifty thousand Wordpress plugins exist today. If you’ve ever dabbled with Wordpress, you’d know that plugins are essentially no-code tools to expand the functionality of a Wordpress site.
Shopify’s ecosystem spans over 2,000 third-party apps built on top of Shopify’s core offering, and these apps have been installed several million times by merchants running stores on Shopify.
Businesses building plugins and apps are thriving, with top Wordpress plugins like WooCommerce, Yoast SEO, and Gravity Forms generating north of a million dollars each in annual revenue.
Side note: After being downloaded 7.5 million times and powering 600,000 storefronts, WooCommerce was acquired by Automattic, the company behind Wordpress.
A movement or a trend?
Movements take place when a large number of people come together to collectively change something that small groups of people cannot. A movement lasts long and typically has a long-lasting impact.
On the other hand, a trend hits a peak and dies down either quickly or gradually. Trends come and go quickly and it is common for an old trend to make a comeback.
So, is no-code really a movement or just a trend at its peak?
There’s no concrete answer but here’s something worth thinking about.
One of the most-beloved form-building tools, Typeform (2016), has been inducted into the no-code hall of fame.
On the other hand, Jotform (2006) is a popular form builder, albeit without a cult-like following that Typeform has garnered. Jotform currently has upwards of five million users but is never referred to as a no-code tool. The same goes for every other form-builder in the market.
From this perspective, every time somebody includes Typeform, or for that matter, even Mailchimp, in a list of no-code tools, the no-code movement appears to be more of a trend than a movement; a trend that several well-known SaaS companies have managed to latch on to successfully.
So then what qualifies as a no-code tool?
Both new and established SaaS companies are leveraging the opportunity to market themselves by riding the no-code wave.
A plethora of SaaS products are being positioned as no-code tools simply because they enable one to achieve something that would otherwise require writing code.
From that point of view, every SaaS tool is a no-code tool.
SaaS = No-code?
CRM software allows one to track, organize, and manage customer relationships without writing code. In the absence of out-of-the-box, customizable CRM tools, companies would be compelled to allocate engineering resources to build custom software to do what a CRM does.
Marc Benioff realized this before anybody else and started Salesforce (1999), which turned into one of the most successful SaaS companies known to mankind.
So, does Salesforce qualify as a no-code tool? It depends on whom you are asking.
Salesforce CRM is to a sales executive what Mailchimp is to an email marketer, what Excel is to an analyst, or what Figma is to a designer.
You get the picture.
In essence, SaaS tools that enable one to do one’s job and do it efficiently without relying on code, can all be categorized as no-code tools.
Even developers rely on tools that replace or reduce the burden of writing custom code to implement standard features like user authentication, search, and payments.
No-code for coders?
Stripe enables developers to add payment processing functionality to an app without writing custom code.
Does that make Stripe a no-code tool?
By definition, it does.
But integrating Stripe into an app requires one to use its API which is done via code, so is Stripe really a no-code tool?
Again, totally depends on whom you are asking.
A developer might not agree but a visual developer — someone who builds stuff using no-code tools and has managed to build an app and integrate Stripe without writing code — will certainly do.
No-coder, Maker, Citizen Developer, and Visual Developer are all monikers that are used interchangeably.
The leading no-code tools — Bubble (2012) and Webflow (2013) — enable one to build web apps and powerful websites respectively. While both of these have been around for years, the no-code trend is helping accelerate the awareness and adoption of these tools at an unprecedented rate.
In fact, to give credit where it is due, Bubble and Webflow are the ones that have really pushed the limits of what one can build without code. It’s fair to say that the no-code trend has come along as an outcome of their continued efforts.
And these very tools have given rise to the moniker Visual Development — the act of building anything on the internet using a visual interface and no code.
Visual development encompasses building everything from apps, bots, and websites to automated workflows, integrations, and data visualizations.
If you build any of these digital experiences using visual development tools — better known as no-code tools — you can call yourself a visual developer.
Okay, so what is the verdict on no-code tools?
We should stop referring to tools as no-code tools altogether. Problem solved.
- SaaS tools like Mailchimp or Salesforce CRM are used out of the box to perform specific and independent tasks, ones that can be carried out without reliance on external apps.
- Developer tools like Stripe or Algolia are used to expand the functionality of other apps without writing additional code.
- Visual Development tools like Bubble, Webflow, Zapier, Integromat, Airtable, Notion, Coda, and others are used to build stuff that one could only build by writing, hosting, and maintaining a whole lot of code in the absence of these tools.
The term no-code is not going away soon but we should all collectively take a pledge to use it sparingly. Whether something is built with code or without, there is always an element of code, and this is something the visual development community understands well.