While the battle between low-code platforms and custom software solutions might not have the legacy of Coke vs. Pepsi, Apple vs. Samsung, or Star Trek vs. Star Wars, it’s a comparison worth weighing for companies choosing to build their own custom software solution.
Until recently, custom-made software development was the de facto choice for companies. In large part because it was the only choice. But in the last decade, low-code platforms have emerged as a viable alternative option for companies who aren’t completely sold on following tradition.
Low-code platforms and custom software development both result in tailor-made business applications. So what makes them different?
Low code vs. Custom: Software Development
In traditional software development, the process works much like building a custom house. The company consults with their in-house or a third-party development team to determine all the features the software should have. Once both parties agree upon blueprint, the IT team launches into the development phase and begins writing the software. When they finish, the process moves to the testing stage; it’s here where the end users will reconnect with the software and begin trying it out to make sure it does what it must.
The end user plays no direct role in the development process. Meaning by the time they see the software, the user must navigate it much like a homeowner walks the layout of a finished house. Everything is laid into place; small changes can be made, but the concrete is poured.
This approach has its value for companies who don’t want or need their employees to spend their time developing business applications. It can also be a great approach if a business needs to restructure its entire business process rather than improve upon the existing process.
By contrast, low-code platforms upend the traditional development process by making the end user the developer. Many low-code platforms are “out of the box” solutions that a company can begin using with little to no technical development. Users can simply login and begin writing their own business software using a “drag and drop” interface. In this way, the end user is no longer separated from the development phase but instead plays a vital role in its realization.
By removing the divide between developer and end user, low-code platforms allow end users to directly communicate their vision into the software. It is no longer left to interpretation by parties who do not interact with a given business process on a direct level.
For companies with limited IT or development resources, or companies who have a strong grasp of their working process and are looking to improve it rather than entirely overhaul it, the hands-on aspect of low-code solutions offers a quick and effective way to do so.
Low code vs. Custom: Time
Traditional software development can take between 4-9 months to culminate in a final working product that a company can implement. The timeline scope of a project can change depending on the requirements of the business and the size of the development team but creating code from scratch always takes more time than it does to build off an existing framework. To use the house analogy, there are simply more steps involved when building a house from ground up rather than flipping a pre-existing structure. Even this loose timeline is no guarantee, however. “According to a study by KPMG Information Technology, 85 percent of software development projects go over schedule.”
Low-code solutions are build-as-you-go. Think of it like a house that creates itself as you walk from room to room. What’s needed can be built—no waiting on a development team to outline and start building the software while you use workarounds in the meantime. This marks one of the biggest differences between traditional custom software solutions and low-code platforms: the platforms are available upon purchase, whereas the custom software must be built before it can be launched.
For low-code solutions that require a third-party developer, customizations may take a few days to a few weeks. This shortened development phase is the result of coding off a pre-existing platform rather than writing code from the ground up. Much of the baseline coding work is already complete.
Low code vs. Custom: Cost
Custom-made software can get expensive. According to Soltech, “the majority of custom software projects fall somewhere between the $40,000 and $250,000 mark to design and develop the application.” The cost will change depending on the scope of the project and needs of the company, of course; an enterprise-class software for 500 users will not have the same price tag as a small company product with fewer features for a five-man team. For companies who need highly customized software that would be difficult to create using a low-code solution, the price tag may well be worth it.
Low-code platforms rest on the other end of the price spectrum. Kintone’s own price model starts at $24/month per user, with other low-code solutions offering similar rates. The biggest difference in cost is where the burden of development lies. With low-code platforms, a company pays only to access the service, not its development from start to finish.
The benefit of a more expensive, custom-software solution is that companies get a dedicated development team working on their technology needs. With a low-code solution, smaller companies might need to use the service company’s development team or utilize software partners to get technical support (if they don’t have an in-house team to help them).
Low code vs. Custom: Maintenance
The software is complete, but it’s never completely finished. There will always be updates or revisions as company goals and processes shift. With traditional software solutions, these changes will require an in-house or third-party development team to implement changes. Software revisions will also go through similar (albeit smaller) cycles of the software development process, with teams outlining, designing, testing, and then training users on new changes.
For companies with a dedicated IT team, revisions can be closely project managed. Companies will be able to know what changes are being made and their timeline for release. However, the company may also experience delays if their IT team has its hands full with other demands such as individual requests, security issues, network problems.
Low-code platforms are typically an aPaaS (application platform as a service), meaning they are run and maintained by the company that owns the software (similar to Microsoft with Office 365). Updates and improvements in the software are handled by the hosting company rather than the business subscribing to the service. For companies with a small or non-existent IT department, this allows them to enjoy a well-maintained software without the need for a team or third-party vendor.
Custom software solutions and low-code solutions have their own advantages. The benefits of each is largely dependent on what the company using the software needs, as well as the company’s infrastructure. A company with 500 users in a niche field with a need for complex, highly-customized software needs may find it worthwhile to custom-make their own software. By contrast, a business that needs customized but relatively normal business applications (CRM, expense tracking, inventory tracking, etc.) may find the low-tech, DIY nature of low-code platforms more suitable.
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