The words "No Code" displayed on a laptop screen.

Anybody interested in the future of software and how we will interact with computers a few years from now will have come across something called “no-code” platforms—with or without the hyphen. No-Code isn’t just the future; it’s available in the present.

What Is No-Code?

At its simplest, no-code is exactly what it sounds like: Programming without using code—no matter if that means websites, mobile apps, full programs, or even just scripts. This means that anybody, even clueless tech writers, can create something online or on their laptop and can reasonably assume it will work.

No-code is often hailed as the future of coding, especially by the companies that offer it, and terms like “democratization of the internet” and “anybody can be a maker” are thrown around in their advertorials. However, there is some truth to these assertions.

A few years ago, if you had an idea for a really good game, app, or another program, the only way to bring it to life was to either know how to code (and pray you knew the right programming language) or be willing to learn on the fly. If you had money, there was another option: Hire somebody to do it for you. That was pretty much it.

That’s no longer true: now, instead of learning a whole programming language (or even several), you only need to learn how a single program works before you can work on whatever inspiration hit you. While you’ll still need to be persistent and hard-working, the burden of technical knowledge has been lightened substantially.

How No-Code Tools Work

That brings us to something that isn’t talked about as much: Although no-code tools make it easier to put together a program or website, they do not make it effortless. Even the simplest of tools will require that you figure out how they work, and often you’ll also need to understand a little about how tech works. One example is knowing how the internet operates when putting together a website.

That said, it’s still a lot easier than putting together a program from scratch, even if you don’t factor in the time and effort it takes to learn how to program.

Instead of using a command-line interface or IDE with its colored text, most no-code tools will instead use a drag-and-drop interface, or word placement like you may remember from school.

However you enter the information, what is happening is that the no-code tool is turning your simplified input into “real” code on the backend, kind of like an interpreter. You may not speak Python or C++ or whatever programming language your type of program needs, but your interpreter does.

Examples of No-Code Platforms

The above may still seem a little abstract, so let’s go over some examples of no-code platforms so you get an idea of what they can do.

Website Builders

Probably some of the most popular no-code tools are website builders. Many individuals and small businesses have put up their own simple sites using a service like Wix or Squarespace, something which was unthinkable even just a decade ago. Back then, you needed to know HTML and CSS at the very least.

Wix interface

Now you can have a pretty spiffy-looking page up in a matter of hours, less if you’re comfortable with the program, and it won’t be just some static page, either. Most website builders will have all kinds of interesting plugins, ranging from newsletter signup buttons to full-on webshops. You’d be surprised how many professional businesses use these handy tools.

Automation Tools

Another huge section of the no-code market includes automation tools like Zapier or IFTTT. In a way, these are probably the best introduction to how no-code works as they’re very simple. In most cases, all they do is let one program talk to another one.

For example, you can make it so that every time you create a document in Dropbox, a message is sent in Slack—or vice versa. Another popular application is to use it for photo backup, so every time you’re tagged on a Facebook picture, a copy is sent to your Dropbox.

IFTTT selection screen

Though it may seem basic, automation tools are massive timesavers for both individuals and companies. They remove the need to do certain things manually and, by automating them, ensure you’ll never forget to perform that action. If you’ve never tried them out, you should, they’re a lot of fun.

Development Tools

The last set of no-code tools we’ll go over is a bit of a grab bag: We’ve included any tool that can make an app or a program, either for desktop or mobile. This is a huge category and we can’t touch on everything, but, in short, almost any kind of program these days can be made without using code.

Unity at work

For example, you can put together a simple app for Android or iOS using an app maker like AppyPie or NativeScript, or even create full games using a platform like Unity or Unreal Engine. There is a seemingly unending number of new no-code tools coming out every month, catering to people’s specific wishes and particular niches. For just one overview, we recommend this list.

Limits of No-Code

All that said, though, no-code definitely has its limits. Generally speaking, the more complicated the thing you’re building, the more complicated the tool you’re using. For example, a simple script that copies a Dropbox file into Google Drive can be put together in just a few minutes. If you add a large number of qualifiers, though—no image files, say, or no files under 2MB—then get ready to start thinking like a programmer.

Many of the apps we’ve mentioned will use many of the underlying basics of visual programming languages like Scratch. Although they’re generally considered a good way for kids to learn how to program rather than fully-fledged languages, it’s still programming—and you need to adjust to that mindset.

For example, when creating a script, you need to be thinking sequentially, “if this happens, then that happens.” That’s simple enough, but you also need to be mindful of knock-on effects, especially when making a daisy chain of conditional statements.

That’s mostly the abstract side of it, there’s also a practical one: the more you know about programming, the easier these tools are to operate. Website builders are a great example: While they make it easy to make a site without knowing any CSS or HTML, they’re a lot easier to handle if you do. You can also tweak any details you don’t like.

The same goes doubly for much more complicated programs: a programmer can get a lot more done with Unity than the aforementioned clueless tech writer, and learn to handle the program a lot quicker, too.

The upshot is that, while no-code is a great invention that will change the internet in many ways, programmers aren’t going away any time soon. If you really want to be a maker, you’ll still want to learn how to code.

Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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