The future of apps: How Salesforce is using low code development

A new App Cloud Mobile suite blends all of Salesforce's developer tools into one mobile application development platform.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

Development tools need to take into account end users, business users, and traditional developers alike.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

While much of the focus on low code development is on users as developers, the so-called 'citizen developers', they're only part of the story.

Yes, the fact that anyone can build an app is important, but it's also important to note that experienced developers and designers are key to delivering compelling tools to end users. That doesn't mean that developers can't benefit from the tools and technologies that let us deliver low code solutions, it just means that they're going to use them differently.

In my previous column on low code, I pointed to Salesforce's mix of developer platforms as an exemplar of how user-based development can be made to work. This week they've brought out a fresh release of their cloud-based development platform App Cloud. App Cloud Mobile is a mobile app-focused set of tools, with a mix of target audiences that add up to a way of building front- and back-end tools that work with Salesforce's data platform and APIs, while taking advantage of the Heroku PaaS.

Just before the launch I had spoke with Seema Kumar, a Salesforce VP of product marketing, about how Salesforce sees the low code space -- and how it's bringing all its developer platforms together to support different types of developers and different types of applications.

One thing that's key to App Cloud Mobile is that we need to change how we build apps, as we need more developers. Kumar noted that, "There's a huge demand for apps on mobile." And while there's that demand, there's also another set of demands that need to be met: "Apps need to be beautiful, they need to be secure, and they need to be connected to different data sources," she said.

While it's easy to think of Salesforce as a CRM SaaS vendor, it's spent much of the last few years building a hefty development platform -- and bringing in folk from developer-centric companies like Google and Microsoft to run the platform. That's given it three different platforms which it can use to build low code applications with a focus on mobile.

The first, Force.com, is the direct descendent of its original APEX development environment, allowing you to build applications on top of the Salesforce service and its data. Closely related is Lightning, a set of components that can be used to build applications inside the Salesforce 1 mobile app. Finally, there's Heroku, a pioneering PaaS development platform that can quickly run bundles of code, as well as host data and API integration.

App Cloud Mobile bundles the three services together, allowing you to manage your users and your developers, controlling access to services and data, while giving you a way of distributing code both inside and outside your business. Business users can use low code techniques to drag-and-drop Lightning components into applications, while developers can continue to use their choice of tools and languages -- making it possible for both developers and users to collaborate on new apps.

At the heart of the bundle is an SDK that handles identity, securing data access. Developers building end-user apps can work with familiar technologies like Apache Cordova to build code that will run on any mobile platform, using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. External data and APIs can be brought into an app using Heroku Connect, which lets you map fields between databases, as well as linking code to Salesforce data.

With Salesforce at the heart of the platform, there's a strong focus on understanding customer interactions, and you can analyse how users are working with an app. Kumar demonstrated a property app which could be used to link realtors to house buyers, allowing buyers to express an interest in a property in a mobile app that reflected back into the corporate Salesforce instance -- and then into a Lightning app in a realtor's SalesForce 1 instance.

Building a Lightning app is easy. A browser-based tool makes it easy to quickly select the layout you want, then just drag and drop the components you want onto the page. Once built, you're able to push it to the Salesforce 1 app container, so it's available the next time a user logs on. There's no need to go to an app store to download it, and any updates are available as soon as they're published.

There's a lot to like in what Salesforce is doing with its App Cloud Mobile service. It's nicely balanced between end users, business users, and traditional developers, giving all of them what they need to get their jobs done. As Kumar points out, it's all about "getting data out of apps quickly, and then allowing people to take action". If you can do that and build your code quickly, then there's a real business benefit to be had.

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