Coghead Shuttered: Another in a Long Line of Non-Developer Developer Tools
Posted by Bob Warfield on February 20, 2009
Coghead has shut down. Techcrunch has a copy of the letter sent to customers announcing the shutdown. Customers will be able to run their apps without support until April.
Meanwhile, SAP of all places has acquired the technology. I can’t imagine anything further removed from SAP than a tool for non-developers to use to create low end database and form apps. After all, SAP is known for unbelievably flexible but costly to implement and extremely complex high end enterprise apps. But, I assume a Grand Plan will be revealed in the fullness of time. Maybe they just wanted to hire the developers as a team. Intuit Quickbase have extended an offer to try to bring Coghead’s customers over. It’s a generous offer, but transitions like this are not easy. Coghead was a proprietary tool as most of these are and so the apps will have to be rewritten. Still, presumably there are folks dependent on those apps who will have to do something.
The market for tools for non-developers to build software with is littered with interesting remnants. They range from things like BASIC (still successful, but not clear VB is as simple as the original BASIC people were using to write Lunar Lander games with) to dBase/MS Access to the brief Renaissance of 4GL tools from companies like Powersoft that marked the early part of the Client Server era. Many of these tools have vanished without a trace, or at least gone off to niches where they’re much loved but seldom heard about. Lots of fancy names have been bandied about for this breed. Coghead calls itself a “declarative application” for example.
In general, these tools are really difficult to get right. Developers are expensive, and there is often a need for a little app that doesn’t warrant the expense of hiring the developers. It seems so tantalizing to many that an app can be created that suddenly makes it possible for non-developers who understand their business problem to crank out the apps like crazy. Alas, mostly it doesn’t happen so easily. The products demo well, but programming in the end is, well, programming. It ain’t easy if you’re not really a programmer at heart. Probably the best example of a successful product for non-programmers is the spreadsheet. But look at why it succeeds:
– They completely broke the mold. There was nothing remotely like spreadsheets before Visicalc arrived on the scene.
– They limited themselves to a particular domain–accounting and financial statements. And that domain gave them a ton of elbow room because there were a lot of “apps” (spreadsheets) that needed creating there, and they were all highly custom.
– The availability of this new invention intersected and rode on the back of a major paradigm shift that was underway: the PC. Spreadsheets, together with Word Processing, were the “killer apps” that made PC’s important to business.
This other genre of products doesn’t benefit from any of those qualities. They mostly don’t break the mold enough to really make programming easier. Instead they borrow ideas from lots of places and wind up complex grab bags of ideas. Their domain, simple apps that need forms and databases, often just don’t have enough compelling apps to sell. And lastly, that paradigm shift hasn’t been there to help much. In a world where you had a choice of BASIC or dBase to build a custom accounting system, life was easy. Today you could use so many different choices, and all the existing accounting systems are so much more customizable, that it’s hard to argue for this class. Coghead was at least SaaS, some called it a Platform as a Service, but I just don’t think the paradigm shift was favorable enough given other available choices. I also agree with Sinclair Schuller that the highly proprietary nature of a lot of these tools makes adoption a lot harder.
An adjacent space that I think is much more viable would be the easy-to-use “P” languages: Pearl, Python, and PHP. Ruby on Rails counts too, even though it doesn’t start with “P” and may be a little more cerebral than the other 3. I’ve seen non-programmers do some pretty amazing things with these tools. They have huge communities, and the languages are amenable to the sort of copying-and-pasting-of-examples-barely-understood. At least they’re not proprietary and its easy to get lots of help, whether in the form of books available everywhere, online help, lots of finished examples, or even meeting someone pretty easily who is an “expert.” Another I would throw into this category is Adobe’s Flex, which lets you do some very cool things indeed, though it is a touch more proprietary.
Other players still standing in this space: Caspio, Bungee, Longjump, and probably others I have missed. Best of luck to you guys!