The Future of Low-code is the Long Tail of (Smart) App Templates

My low-code journey began in 2008. This was years before low-code grew into a developed market, had a clear proposition or even a considerable solution for enterprises. Founded out of a dorm room, Mendix had 15 employees and the ambitious, disruptive vision of bringing business and IT together to deliver applications faster and easier.

Future of low-code

After several lighthouse customers in the Netherlands, I packed a suitcase, booked a one way flight and flew to Boston to establish Mendix in North America with a true entrepreneurial and “go-get-em” spirit. The decision to jump overseas relatively early helped accelerate the global adoption of the Mendix solution.

For many years we educated the market as people were trying to relate it to existing solutions. Once analyst firms like Gartner and Forrester started to recognize that we were onto something new – since no “Quadrant” or “Wave” had existed yet for our solution – Mendix helped define the low-code market from the bottom-up with strong, visionary leadership and a highly talented R&D organization. The company consistently grew triple digit numbers year over year, which set the foundation of the low-code platform market internationally. 

It’s hard to imagine when thinking back to the early days that Mendix is now considered the global low-code leader by many recognized analysts and companies, who are predicting the market will account for 65% of all application development by 2024. Joining an exciting ride from hardly any revenue to an acquisition of $730 million by Siemens in October 2018 over the course of only a decade, has given me a unique perspective on the constantly evolving landscape, players, value drivers and propositions of an industry. Although ecosystems are constantly changing and there is no single recipe for success, there are absolutely lasting lessons I’ve learned. An important one for platforms is that you have to constantly adjust and tweak your message and value proposition to what the market actually needs and expects. What business problems are companies facing and how can we uniquely solve these with the technology and services we offer? 

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

In order to understand the value of low-code to the business, it is important to have a paradigm shift focused on its actual output: The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ vs. the ‘How’. The easiest way to explain this shift is through a simplified analogy: The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The epitome of gaming back in the 80s was the Nintendo. Who doesn’t remember popular games like Nintendo’s Mario, Duck Hunt, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, Square’s Final Fantasy, Konami’s Castlevania and Capcom’s Megaman? The most popular game on the NES was Super Mario Bros. To date it has sold over forty million copies, making it the second-best selling video game of all time (behind Nintendo’s 2006 console pack-in, Wii Sports). 

When you really think about it… Were we excited about the Nintendo console/box itself? Or playing the actual games? I believe the latter. What we wanted was to play Super Mario 3, or Legend of Zelda, and that’s why we purchased the Nintendo Console. In a similar way, the real value for the end-user and customer leveraging a low-code platform lies in the apps that are going live, similar to how a gamer plays games on the Nintendo box. Here’s a visualization that helps understand this better:

Shift in focus

During the first phase of Mendix and low-code, the focus was really on the platform, while today people are expecting not only the platform, but also concrete content that comes with it. Similar to how we were offered a complete catalog of games to make the Nintendo attractive to buy – many companies stepped up and developed their own games to play on the console. The comparison of a low-code platform with a Nintendo box is of course a simplification. That said, it demonstrates what I believe in strongly: The power of the platform is only as good as the number of apps, app templates and the quality of the content around the platform. In other words, more and better apps lead to higher success rates and adoption of the platform. The unique value drivers of the platform, i.e. business and IT collaboration and control, speed, and agility, translate to differentiating apps that beat any off-the-shelf solutions or custom app development projects. The real value for organizations lies in fully tailored apps going live quickly, so the business gains operational efficiency, new revenue streams, true market differentiation or even disruption. 

Just like any other market, our industry of low-code is evolving as well and our market is looking for and expecting new things. Consumerization of IT is happening and the customer expects more from solutions and wants to be in full control. Ultimately, the customer wants the speed of getting an out-of-the box solution, with the agility / flexibility to customize what you typically see with a traditional coded solution. This change of customer expectations with a focus on apps rather than the underlying platform, combined with the fact that anyone can now (co)develop their own apps / games, leads to a new phase in the market. As industry leaders, we should drive a shift on the solution side of our market as well, and balance accordingly between the App and the Platform proposition.

This is the next transition that is taking place in the low-code market today: There is less focus on the platform and more focus on the content around the platform, such as low-code app templates, building blocks and reusable widgets. The (prospective) customer wants to be in complete (hands-on) control and wants to see the direct value of pre-built templates and accelerators with the benefit that these are developed on a low-code platform. Hence, easily customizable at the data, logic and UI/UX layer. 

Head vs. Long Tail

To go one step further, I refer to an article published in 2004 in Wired Magazine by Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, which describes a concept that relates closely to our market and the shift I’m describing. The Head of the below graph refers to selling just a few products many times, while the Long Tail refers to selling many unique items with relatively small quantities sold of each. 

Nintendo actually followed a similar approach by developing and owning its most popular (= Head) games, such as Super Mario, while its partners developed and owned many other games (= Long Tail) to offer many options to the consumer. A total of 715 known licensed game titles were released for the Nintendo Entertainment System during its lifespan. In a similar way, I’d argue that the value for (prospective) low-code customers is shifting towards the quality and quantity of the unique content offered in the Long Tail, as low-code platform features and functionality are taken for granted. Customers are asking, if not expecting, this exact approach, simply because we all are used to it and see this model everywhere, (e.g..  Netflix). 

What if the low-code platform providers itself work on their platforms and deliver apps/content focused on the Head, while the community, its users and its partner ecosystem, focuses on the Long Tail of apps and templates? The beauty of low-code is that we can take this concept of the Long Tail even a step further, since everyone can participate in the content generation… You can build your own apps and templates that everyone else can use. Imagine having access to hundreds of thousands of app templates, building blocks and widgets specifically for each industry, business domain or person. How powerful and differentiating would this be? 

There is a huge opportunity to offer platform customers the enrichment of the Long Tail of templates offered via its ecosystem and partners, like TimeSeries. The total value of the Long Tail can be as big as the value of the Head. One thing is for sure, the end-customer has many options and will ultimately choose one platform over another, based on the quality and quantity of the content offered via that platform.  

Industry-specific templates

This is exactly why TimeSeries, as a leading Siemens and Mendix partner, launched the TimeSeries Smart App Suite about a year ago. The suite consists of low-code app templates for specific domains and industries that can be fully customized, extended and integrated with existing back-end systems. These templates bridge the gap between what customers in the market are actually looking for and what is being offered from a platform perspective. Examples of cross-industry templates are Automated Planning, Predictive Maintenance, Intelligent Insight, Asset Tracking and Management, and Smart Warehousing. We’ve also made a big push for industry-specific templates based on TimeSeries’ 250+ accumulated years of Mendix experience within our team and recently launched low-code templates specifically for Manufacturing, Energy/Utilities, Life Sciences (incl. Medical Devices) and Marine.

The customer is offered a menu of app templates and often starts small and focuses on one business domain first, creating the confidence and hard numbers/results to backup a broader platform adoption. To bring back the Nintendo box metaphor: Start with one game, a few more, and then let’s work together on a plan so you can develop your own game(s). Our approach of quick starts via templates and Mendix accelerators is proven and, ultimately, speeds-up successful Mendix platform adoption and customer’s return on investment. 

Mendix Expert Services and Adoption programs

Customers leverage our Mendix experience via our services team for app (co)delivery, quick scans (i.e. app performance and health checks) and workshops. We also offer proven adoption programs for organizations to set up their own Center of Excellence of low-code and smart apps. TimeSeries University and our Smart App Factory are two program examples that go far beyond co-delivery of the actual apps and deals with optimizing app ideation, governance, architecture, training, DevOps and measuring value and progress of this program. It’s the glue and guidance between all the different aspects of successful adoption and roll out of innovative technologies, like Siemens’ low-code platform Mendix.

The future of Low-code is the Long Tail of (Smart) App templates

This shift towards content around the platform does not apply solely to Mendix. In my opinion, this applies to any low-code platform provider and almost every platform company. As mentioned, Netflix is one of the many examples where content is king and the true differentiator on top of a streamlined, easily accessible platform. It becomes more and more important to offer our low-code customers a complete library and suite of app templates and accelerators, that is relevant to each individual, industry and business domain. It’s amazing to see how many things have changed and evolved since the beginning of my low-code journey over 12 years ago. As we continue to lead from the front and shape the next phase, the future is bright. 

Where do you see the balance of the Platform vs. the App vs. the App templates and Accelerators? And what’s your opinion of the value of the Long Tail of content to differentiate a platform proposition for the customer?

June 24, 2020
Vincent de la Mar