AWS dips into no-code. Can it reach critical mass?

Amazon Web Services made a clear entrance into the no-code space last week when it launched its Honeycode platform, an application building solution geared toward business users without programming skills.

The tool uses a visual application builder centered around a spreadsheet that lets users spin up applications to track data and workflows in an enterprise setting. Currently in a beta phase, Amazon will let customers build applications with up to 20 users for free.

The AWS solution entered a market packed with competitors. The low- and no-code space is home to 200 vendors, according to a 2019 Gartner report. To stand out, AWS is narrowing its approach, aiming for workers in line of business roles, not technical staff. 

The sweet spot for Honeycode users are business analysts or program managers who currently use spreadsheets to track deliverables, and who often turn to IT or outsourced developers to ask for custom programs, according to AWS VP Larry Augustin.

“There are lots of people who have those business problems,” Augustin told CIO Dive. “There are not enough developers to build custom solutions for them. We hear this from our customers all the time.”

But two analysts consulted by CIO Dive contend Amazon’s solution isn’t ready to compete in the mature low-code space. After evaluating the platform, both cited challenges in usability and the heft of its capabilities.

“It feels like a prototype,” said John Bratincevic, senior analyst at Forrester, in an interview with CIO Dive. “I’m surprised they released it as it stands. It needs a lot of polish. They were going for ‘intuitive’ but it’s actually pretty unintuitive.”

Honeycode is following a pattern familiar to Amazon: releasing a tool that will quickly be iterated upon, according to Bratincevic. 

But AWS needs to “iterate on it quick,” he said. “How you get the spreadsheet to act like a database is very obtuse, and then how you layer on the [user interface] is definitely unintuitive.”

A trial balloon

With Honeycode, AWS is entering a low-code and digital process automation market that’s set to double revenues in the next four years, soaring from $7 billion in projected revenue in 2020, to $14.5 billion in 2024, according to Forrester projections.

But compared to tools already available on the market, Honeycode feels “very lightweight,” said Jason Wong, research vice president at Gartner, in an interview with CIO Dive.

“It’s probably a trial balloon for them to see what types of usage and adoption they get,” said Wong. Though AWS is connected to the developer community, this marks a foray into the citizen developer audience.

Outside of developer rooms, the low-code space attracts business users with its graphic interface, letting teams infuse more efficient processes to their daily workflow through clicks instead of lines of code.

“This is for teams to use Honeycode to get more efficient with their business processes and their productivity,” said Meera Vaidyanathan, director of product management for Amazon Honeycode at AWS, in an interview with CIO Dive. “As with any first version product, we’re looking forward to learning from customer feedback.” 

Regardless of industry, CIOs are reevaluating their plans for the rest of the year as the pandemic unfolds. Reassessment includes looking closely at which tools they adopt, a decision dependent on the efficiency the platforms can deliver. 

AWS isn’t hoping Honeycode can be “all things to all people,” Augustin said. Instead, it’s centering its approach on providing value to line-of-business workers based on the spreadsheet framework they’re already familiar with.

At least in concept, Honeycode received praise from Patrick Moorhead, founder, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

“This is a big announcement by [AWS],” said Moorhead in a tweet. “Demand for no code, low code, RPA is rising given the huge demand for apps and the lack of programmers. The notion is if you can create a pivot table or Excel macro, you can use these tools.”

But lacking a widely adopted bundle of office efficiency tools, which Microsoft and Google already have, widespread adoption may prove difficult for Honeycode.

With its acquisition of no-code platform AppSheet, Google shut down its low-code platform, App Maker, in January. Microsoft’s Power Apps and Power Automate platforms are expected to reach half of the developer audience this year, Forrester predicted at the end of 2019.

“There are a bunch of other vendors out there with more mature products,” said Wong. “If they’re competing with Microsoft or Google, those products have the benefit of being attached to G-suite and Office 365. They can use that as a Trojan horse, as leverage.”

To attract a wider contingent of the citizen developer audience, the tool will need to enhance the way the user interface (UI) designer connects to the spreadsheet component, Bratincevic said.

“It feels like there’s a spreadsheet imitation but it’s not quite a spreadsheet,” Bratincevic said. How the UI builder relates back to the data sources it draws from can be confusing. 

“The pieces are good,” he said. “But they have to come together so they’re greater than the sum of the parts.”

What comes next is listening intently to user feedback on Honeycode, said Vaidyanathan. “I spend quite a bit of my day looking at the forum and what people are saying,” she said. “We’re just going to be listening to all of this feedback and starting to react to it as quickly as we can.”