Scott Lee is director of federal sales for Terrago Technologies. Guest posts are meant to foster discussion among the community and do not represent an official position of USGIF or trajectory magazine. 

The rise of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the emergence of smartphones have spawned a revolution in mobile location-based capabilities that often seems to outpace the budgets and capacity of traditional software development for many government and commercial organizations.

In the second decade of GPS operations, location features that were available only in GPS and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) platforms continue to proliferate in consumer apps at an accelerating pace. This creates entirely new opportunities with a workforce now trained to use mobile devices as part of their daily lives. Research indicates 90 percent of time spent on smartphones and tablet computers is app-aided, with more than half of that time involving location-based apps.

Answering the demand for custom mobile apps that take advantage of GPS/GIS capability is becoming an IT nightmare, but new development tools are emerging to help bring relief to IT. “Zero-code” app development offers a framework that allows users with no software skills to develop full-featured mobile apps tailored to their requirements. With zero-code, delivery cycles between project start and finish could fall from months and years to hours and days. This method can allow anyone to “write code” using a computer-based menu or template, turning end users into citizen developers with minimal training. With zero-code, simply selecting the features required for a specific application and customizing the look and feel, including branding, can build an app.  Because apps can be updated through a “click not code” app studio, they can be built to meet IT standards without being built by IT resources.

Zero-code is based on an open-architecture Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) environment, facilitating ways to deliver cloud-based mobile solutions that keep costs in line by integrating apps with legacy platforms versus rebuilding the entire platform from scratch.

For years, IT departments have worked furiously to develop enterprise apps to keep pace with demands of end users who find new and imaginative ways to leverage location capability for inspections, asset management, field service and all types of remote operations. Gartner predicts market demand for enterprise mobile app development will grow at least five times faster than internal IT departments’ capacity to deliver them, and that mobile phone sales will reach 2.1 billion by 2019. Those predictions fuel another telling forecast: 60 percent of all fast-mode application delivery projects will be performed outside IT teams by 2020.

Zero-code is a shorter cut on another shortcut, the low-code capability that was spread by Business Performance Management (BPM), Rapid Application Development (RAD), and other tools that helped IT departments deliver apps faster and at a lower cost with less hand coding. But BPM, RAD, et al, require specialized knowledge and can generate platform-dependent products that are difficult to alter and maintain over time. The lifetime cost of ownership for an enterprise app, which includes operations, maintenance, and infrastructure, can be difficult to forecast, and updating the app to accommodate emerging technology remains cumbersome, time consuming, and expensive.

While proven to be powerful tools, low-code platforms have not proven to enable end users to develop their own apps. But what makes zero-code different from low-code and other attempts at streamlining application development?

First, app builders allow users to describe the app they want to publish and allow them to build it from a library of already developed and coded features, fashioned together in menus or templates from which they choose their new app’s capabilities. For example, an end user supplies app descriptions and keywords that will populate the iTunes and Google Play app stores, then uploads logos and branding elements, including graphics and colors for the user interface.  Then it’s time to choose the features and user interface options, menus, and labels.  App studios even give the end user a preview of the app as it’s being built.

Users simply choose which mobile platforms to build and the app stores where they want their app to be available. Data collection, forms to be completed, mapping to be accomplished, workflow and task management to be followed are all among building blocks assembled by the end user. After selecting features, the end user publishes the product to the web or their desired app stores for immediate access by employees, partners, and customers.

For all of its attributes, zero-code—like BPM and low-code before it—exists on an axiom: No development tool can deliver all features for all applications with zero code. Traditional hand coding enables developers to build anything.  Low-code tools enable developers to build most things faster. But zero-code allows any user to build apps in minutes by re-using already-built components. The holy grail of no code democratizes application development for the first time, by design, and creates armies of citizen developers. But it doesn’t replace all traditional development. Rather, it turns unsatisfied stakeholders into a new pool of development resources that can solve their own problems for more solutions as the inventory of components grows.

After all, does a mobile app need to reinvent the wheel and create entirely new features and business processes for all possible user requirements, or can users leverage field-tested features while customizing the workflow for the mission? More likely, the mobile tool can do what it needs to by leveraging existing, operationally tested mobile forms and map features, supported by geo-indexing photos and videos and even personnel in the field. When designed for flexibility to accommodate different workflows, end users no longer need to rigidly encode the business process into the platform, but can design task management parameters in the already-built application.

While zero-code is not a direct replacement for all custom development or low-code solutions, it is a game-changer for both large and small organizations. Some larger organizations will find it useful to augment low-code and traditional applications generated by in-house development staff, enabling them to focus resources and budget on core business logic and systems integration. Small- and mid-sized organizations, many of which have been sidelined during the mobile revolution, will have the first opportunity to deploy custom enterprise apps. These organizations have long sought the advantages enjoyed by their larger competitors, and zero-code can help them access the mobile solution space.

With zero-code, IT departments can have a new and powerful tool for keeping up with demands of GIS/GPS users without breaking the budget. IT can find relief through an approach that allows a faster, less expensive way of app development while still delivering a custom application. Providing end users the ability to truly build apps, without code, frees up substantial IT time and budget—and no organization has too much of either.

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