The Evolution of No-Code: From VisiCalc to Airtable

The concept of no-code has been around much longer than you might think. We took a look at how no-code has evolved between 1955 and today

The Evolution of No-Code: From VisiCalc to Airtable

The concept of no-code has been around much longer than you might think. Recently, the term has gained popularity, but we've been enabling non-programmers to create software almost as long as we've been creating software.

In this article, we'll be taking a closer look at the evolution of no-code, the first no-code tools, the current landscape, and what the future of no-code might look like. To note: we’ll be using two similar terms: no-code and low-code, to describe the abstraction of writing code.

Now, to take a step back in time...

It all began with FLOW-MATIC back in 1955

In 1955, now 66 years ago, legendary computer scientist Grace Hopper created the first programming language for non-programmers. 

Put simply, FLOW-MATIC was designed to help businessmen use computers. It was the first programming language to use English-like statements to express operations rather than mathematical symbols.

A few lines of FLOW-MATIC

COBOL entered the scene in 1960

Just a few years later, in 1960, another programming language that used English-like statements was developed. COBOL, which stands for Common Business Oriented Language, was partly based on the original FLOW-MATIC. It was designed as a language for data processing and is actually still used today, primarily in business, finance, and administrative systems.

The first no-code tool: VisiCalc in 1983

In the early ‘80s, Excel's predecessor, VisiCalc (Visible Calculator), launched onto the scene. Unlike the technologies described above, VisiCalc wasn't a programming language, but rather, an actual piece of software (pretty exciting, right?). That's why it’s considered, by some, to be the first actual no-code tool

Previously, programmers were needed to execute calculations programmatically. VisiCalc empowered everyone who owned an Apple II computer to store, analyse, organise and run calculations on data in a spreadsheet format. VisiCalc's creator, Dan Bricklin, was credited to have "Forever changed how people use computers in business".

VisiCalc on an Apple II

Microsoft Excel became a firm favourite, 1987

While VisiCalc is no longer around, one of its successors is still widely used today. Like VisiCalc, Microsoft Excel enables non-programmers to organise and manipulate data. Like VisiCalc, this piece of software has been incredibly influential in the business world.

A first in 1995: Microsoft Frontpage’s no-code website builder 

In 1995, Microsoft released what might be considered to be the first no-code website builder: Microsoft Frontpage. At the time, this type of software wasn't actually referred to as ‘no-code’. Rather, it was called a WYSIWYG editor (What You See Is What You Get). This refers to a type of editor where the interface closely resembles the end-result. In other words, what's created in the editor will look a lot like what will be presented to the user. For instance, Webflow is a familiar example of a WYSIWYG website builder.

Microsoft Frontpage 2003 version

Website development enters the mainstream: WordPress, 2003

While VisiCalc's founder is credited with changing the way people use computers, WordPress should be credited with changing the way modern websites are built. 

In fact, 64.6% of websites, whose Content Management Systems are known, are run on WordPress. 

For the first time, in 2003, website development was truly brought to the masses.

Wix, Weebly, Jimdo follow suit in 2006-2007

With WordPress’s influential launch in the web dev industry, many new no-code website builders started to pop up. Weebly and Wix in 2006, followed by Jimdo a year later.  

Although none of these are as prevalent as WordPress is today, their very creation represents the increasing popularity of no-code. Slowly but surely, website builders started marketing themselves as tools that required no technical knowledge. In March 2007, Weebly's front page read "No Technical Knowledge Required." In 2012, Jimdo's front page had a card that read: "Can't code? No problem!".

Weebly's front page in 2007

No-Code expands into eCommerce: Shopify, 2006

Besides website builders, other types of no-code tools started popping up. Shopify enabled users to start an eCommerce store without any technical knowledge. Similar tools like Magento (2008), PrestaShop (2008), BigCommerce (2009), Gumroad (2011), and many others followed.

Webflow sets the bar for website builders in 2013

Straight off the bat, Webflow marketed itself as a website builder where users required no knowledge of coding. Although not literally no-code, since their founding Webflow has referred to the concept of building software without writing code. 

It would take another 8 years (in 2021) before Webflow started using the terms "no code" on their front page.

Webflow's front page in 2013

The current no-code landscape as it stands today

Today, hundreds of no-code tools have been launched, helping non-coders create and build across dozens of different categories like website building, eCommerce, app building, automation, and more. 

The no-code landscape by Obviously AI

Spreadsheet tool VisiCalc empowered people to manage, store and manipulate their data. From these humble spreadsheet beginnings, website builders like Microsoft Frontpage and WordPress were formed. As the trend continued, more complex types of software were tackled by no-code software. Mobile app builders were created, and so were workflow automation tools.

These days, types of software as complex as data science and artificial intelligence, are slowly being transformed by no-code too. Tools like Obviously AI and Levity allow us to use machine learning models without requiring vast technical knowledge. And, Augmented and Virtual Reality tools like Blippar and Overly are enabling more people to build AR applications as well. 

With these advancements come keen interest from investors. The most prominent tools have already been valued at over 1 billion dollars. 

And, it’s not just investors who’ve taken notice. Impressive businesses have also chosen to build their systems using no-code tools. A prototypical example is Lambda School, which somewhat ironically is an online coding school. Michell Wright, Senior Manager of Growth and Strategy, disclosed that Lambda School was initially built using no-code tools like Airtable, Zapier, and Salesforce.

What the future holds for the no-code movement 

“The future of coding is no coding at all”

Chris Wanstrath, CEO at GitHub in 2017

Forrester predicts that the low-code market will grow, from $3.8 billion in 2017, to $21.2 billion in 2022. Gartner predicts that by 2023 more than 50% of applications will be developed using low-code. That really is substantial growth. 

Besides Forrester and Gartner, no-code experts also expect immense growth. David Adkin, the founder of Adalo, a no-code app builder, has interviewed several prominent no-code experts, including Vlad Magdalin (CEO and founder of Webflow), and Wade Foster (CEO and founder of Zapier). Together they predict that by 2021 more products will have launched using no-code than code.

Adalo's conclusions & predictions about the future of no-code

And now you know the evolution of code, it’s time to take your first steps (or leap!) in creating without code. Check out our expert-led tutorials to get started building your big idea, or to optimise and truly ramp up your existing product or service. 

The Evolution of No-Code: From VisiCalc to Airtable

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