These platforms are meant to allow non-technical end users to define data structures, according to their specific needs, and then make use of an online database that stores data according to those definitions. They usually also allow one to build business apps, which are small productivity apps for web or mobile, meant to ease tasks such as data entry and reporting.
The challenge they all face is the technical complexities involved with data modeling, which in this case is left to non-technical end users. The traditional way of solving this is the route taken by MS Access, that is, leaving it to the end user to plan and manually build table schemas and relations. Once the user completes this process, the system can automatically create forms for data entry, based on the schemas he supplied. A more modern approach to solve the same problem goes the exact opposite path, by allowing the user to build the form itself, with a drag and drop interface, then automatically generating a matching schema behind the scenes.
In general, there was a surge of app authoring tools in ’06-’07, and some of those attempts to empower non-programmers to build tools for and by themselves were halted by the ‘08 crisis. Under these circumstances, DabbleDB was acquired by Twitter in ‘10 and shut down in ‘11, Lazybase disappeared in thin air, Teqlo got shut down, and Coghead became part of SAP’s River platform.
The main tool used today for authoring small business apps is Caspio Bridge. It allows one to create databases, web forms, and apps, all without writing any code. With regard to the UI, it works similarly to MS Excel and Access, but is online, with integration support through a SOAP API, POST requests, Datahub, a JS library and a plugin for MS office. Another common solution is Intuit’s QuickBase, which allows the same standard app creation, as well as managing data through a spreadsheet UI. They differentiate by offering a large set of database templates for common industry-specific needs. Both these tools have pricing levels meant for SMBs (but not micro businesses), meaning their plans start at $250-300/mo. Zoho Creator is a third alternative with lower pricing (for small usage, whereas a high usage would cost a lot more than what’s offered by other services). It’s an online database and business apps service, with a form creation wizard, business rules engine, customizable reports, multiple view types (including an editable grid), alerting, rebranding and styles, collaboration, backups, APIs and data exports.
Other contestants in this field would be TrackVia, LongJump, FileMaker Pro and Viravis. They all offer database and app creators meant for non-programmers, as well as custom reporting and database templates. LongJump provides an SDK meant for adding functionality to the system by code. FileMaker Pro offers the ability to build apps for tablets and mobile. Eccentex is another solution, that provides a platform on top of which developers can build productivity apps, and end users can make use of them.
A newer generation of tools is emerging for the past two years or so. Apart from Dreamface, which is aimed at IBM BPM software customers, all of these solutions are meant for micro to small businesses as well as the early adopter consumer market, and are priced accordingly. Ragic! Builder is an app authoring tool that offers a spreadsheet UI meant to allow the end user to define the applications’ form fields. It then offers reporting, full text search, a query builder, embedding results onto one’s website, importing and exporting, access control, versioning, customized scripting and an API. Knack is another solution with really easy data management, user management, and that’s customizable with an open API as well as with CSS and JS editors. SodaDB is a donationware product that offers a simple and customizable database, importing and exporting, a form builder, full text search, and the ability to work without signing in.
Another brand of solutions is that of online spreadsheets, which sit at a crossroad between accounting software and online databases. These are meant to compete with MS Excel on specific vectors, and offer features that make them more attractive for these specific target audiences. Smartsheet is a paid-only online spreadsheet, with a modern UI, mobile versions, and an emphasis on collaboration. Zoho Sheet is a MS Excel clone that mostly fits existing customers of Zoho. Glide Crunch is a desktop spreadsheet application meant for large spreadsheets (the kind that won’t fit into an online tool), and that syncs automatically with your storage on Glide’s cloud office suite. AirXcell is a web based spreadsheet tool meant for scientific and statistical heavy-load work. It uses R language syntax for formulas and functions, and comes built in with a few financial applications. Flextory is a web application that acts as a sort of administration panel for your own data. It’s looks and acts like a standard web admin panel, with item editing forms, filtering, sorting and choosing table fields to view, but the data is really the kind of data you’d use MS Excel to manage. SecureSheet is an online spreadsheet that offers collaboration and security. BinaryThumb is a spreadsheet for iPhones and iPads that contains not only numbers but any kind of media (slightly pivoted since this text was written). Sumwise is a spreadsheet solution that offers smart features like grouping, reusable cells, etc. CollateBox offers collaboration on lists based on MS Excel data. Other solutions would include Editgrid and Skysheet.
UPDATE: Since the time of writing this text in 2012, a new online database solution emerged in the scene, called Team Desk.
*This article is part of a business plan I decided to edit into a series of blog posts. You can find the rest of the content here