The low-code development market is expected to balloon from $13.2 billion in 2020 to an immense $45.5 billion by 2025, according to Gartner. This explosive growth speaks volumes about the appeal of low-code platforms. However, while these platforms promise to democratize software development and lower the bar to entry, they also come with limitations and long-term impacts that organizations must address to ensure the long-term viability of their web & mobile development projects.

What is low-code development?

Low-code development is a software development approach that enables developers to create web and mobile applications with minimal hand-coding. It relies on visual development environments, pre-built components, and drag-and-drop functionalities to accelerate the development process. This approach aims to make software development more accessible, even to those with limited technical expertise.

Low-code platforms are the software solutions that provide a visual development environment used to quickly and simply create low-code web and mobile applications. These platforms often include features for automating workflows, integrating with other systems, and deploying applications across various environments. As of 2023, there are over 250 low-code platforms available, with niche target markets spanning across dozens of industries, each catering to different parts of the development process.

Some of the major players in the low-code space include:

Appian: Appian does better than most low-code platforms with its offerings of a wide range of integration options. Its visual interface and pre-built components simplify complex integrations, making it ideal for businesses with diverse system needs.

Mendix: Mendix stands out from other low-code platforms for its scalability and deployment flexibility. Its drag-and-drop interface claims to be user-friendly, and it supports multiple deployment options, catering to growing businesses – up to a certain point.

OutSystems: OutSystems specializes in rapid custom application development. It uses a model-driven approach and offers a suite of automation tools, making it a popular pick for businesses needing quick solutions.

No-code vs. low-code vs. high-code platforms

No-code platforms are designed for users with zero coding experience by providing an entirely visual interface that eliminates the need for any manual coding. Examples of popular no-code platforms include Wix, Squarespace, and Zapier. Worth noting here is that no-code platforms are less flexible and customizable when compared to low-code platforms. No-code platforms are typically suited to creating simple websites and mobile apps, along with use cases such as automating very basic workflows – but encounter severe challenges in terms of flexibility, scalability, and customizability.

At the other end of the spectrum is high-code development (a.k.a. Traditional development), which involves writing code manually and provides the highest level of customization and control over the mobile and web development process. Traditional development is the most flexible – but also the most complex. It’s the preferred choice for projects that require intricate features, high performance, or specific customizations that low-code and no-code platforms can’t provide. Developers use high-code for building complex and sophisticated web & mobile applications, enterprise-level software, backend services, and much more.

Low-code platforms are the “middle ground” between no-code and high-code development. They are versatile enough to build moderately complex applications like business process apps, web portals, and simple mobile apps. While this middle ground may appear attractive to businesses looking for quick and simple web & mobile apps, there are 6 essential limitations to consider before deciding which route to take.

6 major limitations of low-code platforms and their real-world impacts

Low-code platforms come with significant limitations that can impact long-term viability and scalability, with issues ranging from limited customization and dependency on skilled developers to challenges in scalability and fault recovery. The apparent simplicity that makes these platforms appealing can also act as a roadblock when more complex functionalities are needed. As a result, while low-code platforms may offer a quick start, they often require a transition to traditional coding methods for more complex, long-term projects, potentially leading to increased costs and resource allocation.

Limited scalability

The primary reason for limited scalability is the lack of fine-grained control over the application’s architecture. Low-code platforms are built to simplify the development process, but this simplicity comes at the cost of customization and optimization. For instance, while Mendix offers good scalability when compared to similar low-code platforms, it still may not be able to handle the intricacies of a large-scale, complex application as efficiently as traditional coding methods would.

When the scalability ceiling is hit, the most straightforward solution is often to switch to traditional high-coding methods. Unlike low-code platforms, high-coding gives developers full control over the application, enabling more effective resource utilization and optimization. This is particularly important for applications that need to handle large datasets or run for extended periods without performance degradation.

Performance ceilings

While drag-and-drop interfaces and pre-built components enhance convenience, it can lead to suboptimal performance. Applications built on these platforms can be sluggish and slow to respond, especially when they have to manage large datasets or execute complex algorithms. This is partly because the visual tools, while useful for small projects, can become cumbersome and inefficient as projects grow.

Another downside is the operational cost. Low-code applications can be resource-intensive, especially when hosted in cloud environments. For example, Pega’s visual modeling approach may lead to unexpectedly high operational costs if not carefully optimized. If specific limits are not put in place, these operating costs can rapidly skyrocket and send projects way over budget.

Low-code platforms generally don’t provide full control over performance optimization, resulting in inefficient resource usage. Projects have to rely on the platform’s built-in optimization, which is difficult and even impossible to tailor to the project’s specific needs. Traditional coding, while more complex and skill-intensive, provides full control over application performance optimization.

Customization and flexibility constraints

Low-code platforms tend to restrict application development to predefined behaviors and components, making it challenging to implement unique or complex functionalities. Low-code platforms usually come with a set number of supported or preferred application types, which can speed up development but also limit the kinds of applications that users can effectively build. Making even minor changes to applications and features in these platforms can sometimes require a complete overhaul.

While low-code platforms aim to democratize software development, they still require skilled developers for more complex tasks. For example, back-end APIs, infrastructure management, and even some front-end customizations often need expert intervention. OutSystems, known for its quick and efficient custom application development, still leans on skilled developers for these aspects. This dependency can contradict the idea that low-code platforms can handle all aspects of development without specialized skills.

Dependency and vendor lock-in

The convenience of low-code platforms tends to lead to a dependency on the platform’s specific features, tools, and libraries. This creates a dilemma, as users are bound by the platform’s capabilities and any future updates it may or may not receive. Each platform comes with its own unique ecosystem, and is often not compatible with other vendors in this space. The proprietary nature of these platforms limits customization, posing challenges when adapting to new technologies, project requirements, and the ever-innovating web & mobile development scene.

Financial considerations also come into play here, particularly with licensing models that can make scaling applications costly. This financial burden is another form of vendor lock-in, making it expensive to transition to different platforms or technologies. For instance, sudden pricing changes can lead to projects overrunning their budgets or having to scrap certain features to keep it within the budget limits.

Another layer of dependency also arises from heavy reliance on the vendor’s business decisions. Changes in terms of service or even discontinuation of the platform can jeopardize projects in their entirety. This dependence limits control over both the code and the project’s overall direction – something that isn’t nearly as threatening to traditionally developed web & mobile applications.

End-product quality and robustness

As projects expand, the limitations of low-code platforms become more evident. They’re not designed to handle the intricacies that come with larger, more complex systems. This limitation can lead to performance bottlenecks and even necessitate a shift to traditional coding methods to maintain a web or mobile application’s quality and robustness.

The abstraction layer in low-code platforms acts a double-edged sword. While it simplifies the development process by providing a user-friendly interface, it also poses challenges with debugging and testing. When an issue arises, the abstraction layer can obscure the underlying code, making it difficult to pinpoint the root cause of the problem. This can result in longer debugging cycles, delaying fixes and updates, and ultimately affecting the user experience and the application’s reliability.

Low-code platforms also have limitations when it comes to handling intricate logic or data manipulation. They are well-suited to straightforward tasks but struggle with complex operations that require custom solutions. This is particularly problematic for applications that need to handle a variety of corner cases as low-code platforms tend to lack the flexibility to adapt to unique scenarios, leading to fragile and less robust applications. The absence of robust unit testing support makes it even more challenging to validate an application’s quality, leaving room for errors that could compromise its functionality and security.

Another important layer of complexity arises from the “black box” areas that low-code platforms can create in the codebase. These are portions of the application where the underlying code is not easily accessible or understandable, making it hard to perform long-term maintenance or updates. This obscurity extends to performance optimization and security features. Without full control over these aspects, applications become resource-intensive, leading to inefficiencies and unexpected costs further down the road.

Integration & compatibility concerns

Initial difficulties in integrating low-code platforms with existing systems often require expert intervention. This is particularly true for complex integrations involving specialized databases or legacy systems. Database integration is a prominent pain point for these low-code platforms. Their inability to execute complex SQL queries can be a significant hurdle for organizations that rely on intricate database interactions or for those that leverage specialized databases.

Developing backend services also present another layer of complexity that would most likely require traditional coding skills and backend expertise, negating many of the touted benefits of low-code platforms.

Organizations with unique or newly developed business processes that require custom development often find that low-code platforms’ standard templates don’t suffice – resulting in additional costs for custom development of backend services and custom processes. In a traditional development setting, these “hidden” costs would have been effectively planned for – provided a well-managed and expert-led project scope

The continued need for web & mobile development expertise

Despite the growing popularity of no-code and low-code mobile & web development platforms that target simple and straightforward development needs, there is still a strong need for on-demand teams of expert to guide organizations through the sophisticated process of building reliable, goal-oriented, and successful mobile and web platforms.

The shortcomings of these low-code platforms are clear, especially when put to the test in the real-world where barebones features and functionality are seldom sufficient. Whether experts are onboarded to oversee a large number of low and no-coders and expertly guide the overall direction of an organization’s web & mobile development, or entire on-demand teams are outsourced to build world-class mobile & web applications, expertise is the name of the game – and will most likely continue to be so for years to come.

Thomas Charneau

December 14, 2023

9 Min read