Small businesses, that are unable to afford to build software from scratch, have taken to this drag-and-drop system with glee.

When I first started working on the Mail & Guardian’s website, the first news site in Africa, I had to learn to code HTML. HyperText Markup Language is the glue that holds the internet together – and makes those underlined blue links click through to another page.

It was 1998 and internet publishing was in its infancy. Things like content management systems (CMS) for creating a database of stories and publishing them automatically were still in the future. WordPress – the most widely used publishing system – was still years away.

Everything we did was manual. We wrote the stories and then used an HTML editor app to build the page. Then we had to use a file transfer protocol (FTP) app to upload that file to our servers. Any images had to be separately uploaded. It was necessary technical admin because the software that is widely used now didn’t exist yet.

In the 20 years since, internet publishing software has become so simple. It’s possible for a tech neophyte to publish their own website within a few hours, using any number of hosting services and watching a YouTube instructional video.

Coding is something that happens in the background, especially using WordPress, which most of us have never seen nor understand.

Nor should we. As trite as it is, I have compared tech to driving a car when explaining why it’s too complicated. Everyone understands how cars work. You use the key to unlock and then drive them. How many people know or understand how an internal combustion engine works? Nor should they.

A low-code future opens doors for small businesses

In the last 30 years, as computers and then smartphones have become mainstream, people have been forced to learn a lot of technical stuff they don’t need to. It’s been one of my ongoing bugbears with the consumer technology industry: it has tried to entice buyers of shiny gadgets by impressing them with the billions of transistors on a computer chip, or how many megapixels the camera has. Most of us don’t need to see, nor understand the complexity of, what’s under the hood of our cars or our phones. This ease of use is coming to other parts of the tech universe – most notably in using services.

Often called “low-code” or “no-code” this is a way of using payment services, online shops and web publishing for anyone who has a small amount of tech understanding. Want to start an e-commerce store? Use Shopify to help you build it. Need payments? Plug in one of the many such services. If you run a yoga or pilates studio, Bookamat does it all for the instructor and lets people (literally) book their own time slot and pay for it. Small businesses, that are unable to afford to build software from scratch, have taken to ‘low-code’ with glee.

Software giant SAP is the latest big firm to adopt this methodology. Using drag-and-drop to create your own apps and services allows the average user – and not an expensive developer – to build their own software. Instead of bringing in a mechanic, the actual drivers can choose what they want. With a global shortage of software developers expected in the next few years, it also frees up a business from yet another business congestion.

It’s one of the ways small businesses are leading the world.

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail.