No-code, free software and other considerations – C.Delval, A.Rouzoul, A.Kovalenko

No-code, free software, and other considerations

Walid : We’re going to talk about a subject that is my daily subject, no code. I’ve been wanting to do an episode about free software in the field of no code and low code for a long time. This is an episode that follows a lecture I gave in December 2023 at the Open Source Experience Lounge And also to the many questions from people who contact me to ask me questions about it and I thought it would be interesting to share, and to do this, I got in touch with a few people from the community No-Code France and in particular the Open Source Guild which we’ll talk about a little later and I asked them to come and talk about it with me. They all have diverse experiences and that’s what’s quite interesting.

Logo No-code France

They all know software or they have all referenced various software and so we will be able to talk about it together.

So with me today I have Céline Delval who is a nocoder and who works in a ministry, she will explain to us a little later in her presentation.

Arthur Rouzoul who is the founder of a company called WebCapsule and who will also explain a little bit about what it is.

And Alexis Kovalenko who is one of the founders of a company called Contournement and also one of the founders of the No-Code France community.

Listen, thank you very much to all three of you for being here. I hope all three of you are doing well. That’s right.

Alexis : Thank you for the invitation. Yes, thank you.

Céline : It’s okay, great.

Arthur : Thank you for the guest.

Presentation of the guests

Walid : Top. I’m going to start by asking you to introduce yourselves. What is your background and how did you get to No-code? And especially to look at free tools. So we’re going to start with Céline if you want to start.

Céline : Honor to the younger ones, I’m going. I’ve been doing no-code for a little over five years. I started to put no-code in my life instead of glitter, in my daily work for the organization of a big event. And after the success of the no-code organization in this thing, I wanted to make it my profession.

And today, after having done no-code as a freelancer, giving courses or in an SME, I am now within the ministry, as you said earlier, I am at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and my position precisely, it is no-code project manager. And I’m the only one to date, as far as I know, to have an official no-code position within the administration. If there are others, let me know, we have things to say to each other!

Walid : Do you have a technical or non-technical profile?

Céline : I’m not technical, I have more experience on the operational side and I discovered Airtable, I went to the other side of the fence.

Walid : Great, thank you very much Céline. Arthur, over to you, if you will introduce yourself.

Aurthur : Nice to meet you, it’s Arthur Rouzoul, so I’m actually the co-founder of the WebCapsule.

So the WebCapsule is a DevOps platform for no-code applications. I am a basic engineer, I worked a lot in renewable energies in France and abroad, before returning to France to do a little more development. And we started from a collective of developers, at first we were developing applications for our customers, and we quickly turned to no-code applications that allowed us to go much faster, especially on the back part, with API builders that worked well, which we will come back to a little later I think. And then we turned to free software quite naturally too, to go beyond the limits that we were reaching quite quickly on the tools, even on projects that were not very complex. The free allowed you to get your hands dirty.

And that’s it, the problem with free software is that you have to operate on it and it’s not always easy. And that’s why we launched the Webcapsule and why it allowed us to operate our applications and now allows other people to operate theirs.

Walid : We’re going to talk about this a little bit later. And Alexis, it’s up to you to introduce yourself. In the free software world, you’re a bit of a must, but for people who don’t know you, I’ll let you introduce yourself.

Alexis : In the world of no-code, for example. But I’d like to, I’d like that.

Walid : Alexis. I got confused.

Alexis : Basically, I’m a developer. Basically, I studied telecom and network and I’ve always been passionate about it. It’s a world where, obviously, free software is ubiquitous. I’ve always been super interested in it, I’ve even done everything I can to never use proprietary technologies, whether it’s at the network level or programming languages etc. I’ve done a lot of different things, I’ve been a dev, lead dev etc. And I got into no-code a little bit after my last professional experience where I trained people to become devs, where it’s a topic that will come up I think, the idea of making complex technologies accessible.

Today there are quite a few No-code solutions that are unfortunately proprietary, but which have instilled I think a movement, for me above all a little philosophical, that is to say the fact of being able to make technology accessible, to make relational databases, automations, things like that, to as many people as possible. So there you have it, I was really moving on to the technical side, training people on these technical concepts but thanks to no-code tools.

And I’m keeping a little bit of an eye on the background, but maybe not as much as you do, but really the advances of free tools also in no-code, because it’s true that it saddens me a little, but to be really honest, at Circumvention, we only train in tools today that are proprietary, that are also American. It’s not related but… And that’s it, it’s all a little… Philosophically bothers me a little, at the same time I find that today these are the most successful tools but we can come back to that and talk about the alternatives and where we are on all this.

What is No-code, what is Low-code?

Walid : Absolutely, we’re going to talk about it later on the subject of being an alternative to… We have just mentioned the words no-code and low-code, but first we should start by explaining what no code is, what low code is, what we mean by it. Alexis, could you give us some definitions? Are there any definitions that are already commonly accepted?

Alexis : I can give a little bit of my definition.

In any case, on no code, we have a fairly precise definition at Contournement. Basically, it’s all the software, the tools that make it possible to create things that previously weren’t possible to do without code. And so that it is done through visual interfaces, without having to read or write code, and that it allows for the production of digital deliverables.

Alexis Kovalenko

A spreadsheet can be a no-code tool, but a word processor is not a no-code tool because we’ve never used code to make text anyway. It’s very vaguely summarized but that’s kind of the idea. And for me, on the other hand, low code, I have a definition I think that is not necessarily commonly accepted because for me, low code there is a part of low code which is so there are historical tools that actually pre-date low code tools, tools like I don’t know OutSystems, Mendix, very enterprise tools in fact which are low code tools by essence because they force you to write code, less than traditional developers. But I find that today it’s less interesting because already these tools are not too much in our scope, let’s say at Contournement, but even in the No-code France community. Very undertaken, very expensive tools, etc.

Whereas what I find interesting today is more low-code as an approach. And even if we at Contournement only try to train without having written a line of code, most of the tools we use allow you to put code in it. Airtable for example, which is a tool I find fundamentally no-code, allows you to write scripts in it and so ultimately it’s a question of use and approach and so I think that today it’s very relevant to have a low-code approach with no-code tools. I like to say “no-code + code”, after that it’s a question of branding etc. But in any case, the two are not in opposition, on the contrary, the two must coexist. And what I like is the possibility that we don’t have to do code. And that’s what I reproach the old generation low-code tools, which are gradually starting to rebrand themselves, etc. So today the word low-code, it’s caught a little bit between historical versions, and then a little… But the word no-code, by the way, we were talking about it not too long ago with Céline, is also starting to disappear a little bit from publishers like Airtable, etc. They have less and less. There’s a bit of a marketing part that isn’t necessarily interesting here, but it’s always, we come back to this question of accessibility in the end. Airtable for example, they present themselves as a low-code tool. Now, for Airtable, it may be to win the hearts of CIOs. They will address a technical audience and they are often the ones who have the keys to the tools that we are allowed to use or not. So I think it’s a database that allows people who don’t have a database concept or have quite a few database concepts to be able to start working with something other than an Excel file.

Walid : Arthur, do you want to add something as well?

Arthur : A lot has already been said, indeed we use the term no-code less and less strictly speaking and we talk more about visual programming. Even us on the developer side, at least on the WebCapsule side, the philosophy we had was to say that at least 80% of the application will be made entirely in code and that the last 20 percent will be coded behind it. And so it’s this dichotomy that Alex clarified between “no-code + code” more than code or whatever.

So we call it visual development because ultimately, even if you use no-code tools, you’re going to generate the code behind the application. This one after you can operate on it, you can modify it, you can do a number of things behind it. For us, this visual development makes a little more sense and this approach: it allows you to break down the limits that you can usually have with no-code tools.

Arthur Rouzoul

And then, the marketing component that Céline actually said, to say to herself I don’t show a blank to an IT department to be able to go in and show that I’m doing things right.

Domains where no-code or low-code can be found

Walid : Now that we’ve defined what it is, can you tell us about the different areas covered by these tools?

Alexis : I distinguish it into two parts. Part of the use is made to create digital products, applications for end users, customers, so marketplaces, that’s a little bit the whole category of product launches, startups, etc. And then the other half, which we’re more interested in, which is the part called Ops and it’s evolved a little bit. Now today we are talking more about internal applications, within an organization, an organization in the broadest sense, i.e. an association, a company, an SME, account, anything. For us, these are the two main areas, and then we can subdivide a little bit between what we do internally, automations, etc. But it’s kind of the same thing.

Walid : I’d like us to say a word about the adoption of no-code because we’re inside, we have the impression that everyone uses no-code but that’s not the reality. There are still plenty of companies that don’t use no-code tools. Where are we now? Do you already have any ideas of where we stand? Are there any predictions of what’s to come? Arthur, for example, do you have any ideas? How do you see it from WebCapsule?

Arthur : We’re going to look at it from the American point of view. There are the Americans, our neighbors, who are always a little ahead of the curve in tech, have a slightly wider adoption than we do on no-code tools. And as Alex said very well, the main tools are American and even us, the open source tools that we will have in the different stacks and that we will reference are very often American. They have a more pragmatic approach. For adoption, it’s going to simplify things. No-code makes it possible to speed up, to go much faster in developments and so when we go to an IT department, to an organization that is pragmatic, it will turn to these tools because it will save money.

In France, it will perhaps be less the initial objective, in any case it will not be turned in the same way and suddenly there may be brakes on adoption because there is still a change of mentality to be put in place. This is not necessarily the case for Americans, who are more inclined to change when there is a business interest behind it. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not evolving.

Typically, we are part of an AFNOR group, which is a certification body that is in the process of producing A Stack for Businesses, precisely to guide them in the choice of no-code tools and to help them, or at least to accompany them on a reflection of “which tools I will use for which use and how I will integrate them into my architecture”. And these are issues that are broader, that require a bit of expertise. So I see a little by little entry of the no-code tools that we used in the community for small projects or MVPs, gradually entering bigger boxes and going to shake up the OutSystems, the Mandix, the PowerApps who are the leaders today but who are going to be challenged, at some point or another, by Airtables that go into it, by Xano which will allow you to do back-end quickly or even other hosted services.

Walid : Céline, for your part, how do you see the adoption of these no-code tools, for example, in all public areas?

Céline : So there’s a structure that is very driving the adoption of no-code tools. The ANCT, the National Agency that will take care of Local Authorities.

They are very much a driving force, especially on the development of Grist, since we’ll talk about that later. Grist is an open-source no-code tool. And it’s an American tool, but we’re lucky to have people on the French side who are very involved in the development of the tool. So, I’m not going to make a generalization about the development of no-code in the public service. I’m experiencing it. There’s this ANCT team that is very much a driving force.

For my part, at the ministry, my position was created on the initiative of an enlightened person who understood that there was something to dig into on no-code because we have a very, very large application park, about 250 applications. So, imagine the maintenance needs.

The development of new projects obviously takes a lot of time in the classic format. And for me, the idea is for me to come and respond to fairly simple needs, in the end, but sometimes pressing needs in the services, that the development department cannot take the case and deal with it. So, your question is how I see the development of no-code in the public service: there are several speeds. At home, it’s difficult. In the ministry I’m in, I’m facing a lot of adversity.

Imagine that I am the only no-coder in an IT department of 400 people and that, obviously, when I arrived, I was a little reluctant and saw smiles. I’ve been at it for six months and what I did was I had to set up my stack. So, I studied open-source no-code tools because, obviously, I have constraints both the government’s request to move towards the use of open source tools and other security issues that are huge. So we are extremely secure and obviously the use of SaaS tools is excluded. The origin of the tool is also something to consider. Finally, there are plenty of parameters. So I, who came from the SaaS world as a non-tech, is facing a lot of difficulties. But today, I found a tool that addresses a lot of use cases. For the past six months, I’ve been working on real cases, real needs.

So, it’s going to be a long-term job.

I said earlier, if there are other no-coders in other ministries, let’s get to know each other, let’s pool our forces!

Céline Delval

But I think if there was someone else, given my presence in the community, at least as a spectator, I would have seen the information. I don’t think any other ministry is on board, although the Ministry of Education is looking for a profile: they’re a little different, they’re looking for a no-code and low-code profile. So I could ask you for your opinion on this subject, for me it’s not the same person? A no-coder is hardly going to be a low-coder. And conversely, a low-coder will get bored doing no-code. So for me, the prism when you’re looking for someone to embark on this process is to see what tool or type of tool you’re going to use.

The No-code community France and the Open Source guild

Walid : We’re going to talk about that later on about the different stacks and the complexity of getting into these tools. But you said something that brings me to the next part: you talked about the community and now we have to talk about the No-code France community of which we are all a part. Alexis, one of the founders of the community, will be able to explain this a little. I must say at the outset that this community is very interesting because there is a lot of mutual aid, there are a lot of people, very active. Alexis, can you quickly introduce the No-code France community before we talk about this open source guild of which we are also a part?

Alexis : Very quickly, I don’t know how to give you all the history so as not to take too much time, because it’s not necessarily the subject, but it’s a community that we’re at the origin of. At first it was the community of Contournement, but in fact quite quickly we realized that, when it started to take shape a little bit, especially thanks to the lockdown, etc., it didn’t really make sense to try to keep it to ourselves. And maybe it’s also my inspiration from free software and all that, it’s a very philosophical side, we said we’re going to share that. Basically it’s a Slack server, so there’s a very concrete side, basically at one point we said ok we’re going to change the name, it’s not going to be called the Contournement, finally Slack of Contournement, but Slack of No-code France. We decided with a dozen people to whom we proposed to be administrators, in fact, we made an association behind it. And when we had to, when we started to think about this association, especially with Stan who was really a companion, we both made things move forward quite a bit. Then there were a lot of people around, who grafted themselves, but when it was necessary to make an association. We both agreed with other people that we didn’t want to do a traditional thing with a president etc.

And again, there’s a real inspiration: I’m a fan in fact one of my books that I do is The Cathedral and the Bazaar, for people who come from a free world. I like decentralized organizations, things like that, and so we said “okay, let’s do something with only administrators, no president, no thing, and we’ll see”. And Slack so far has been very self-organized, especially on moderation, etc. And so we didn’t want that to change and that the fact that there was an association behind it was just a support, especially to have small financial means, etc.

And so we imagined a board of directors that takes care of the administrative part and the guilds which are the places where the actions of the association take place. There’s a guild that’s dedicated to slack, obviously, a guild that’s dedicated to organizing professional events to help no-coders, because the mission of the association and the community in general is to welcome people who are interested in no-codes. And so inevitably, and this is what I proposed, there is an open source guild, which is not the most active guild but which will become so little by little I think, and thank you also Walid for proposing this exercise together because it also moves things forward. Because from the beginning, so it’s already been almost three years since we did this, I said to myself “this subject must be present, even if it’s not active it’s not a big deal, there has to be a place, there has to be a channel, there is something and then little by little we will find actions to do”. So that’s a little bit of it, there were different things that you’ll probably talk about, which are a little bit organized. But here’s how, how did we come to have this topic of open source in the No-Code France community?

Walid : Yes, this subject of open source for the moment and it’s clear that it’s not the guild that is the most active.

The work that has been done so far is mostly a tool mapping work. Several people, including Céline, who have made databases for their own needs, have shared them. I’m also thinking of Stéphane Menet who comes from the world of WordPress and who has also done a work with a schema etc that has been used several times. I’ve used it myself in presentations, that they do this because they have a need.

Céline, that’s what you were saying earlier, it’s that you had a need and you have to look for tools and finally you made a base and this base you shared with the people of the guild.

Céline : Exactly, I needed to identify so I went looking for database tools, automation tools and I found a lot of them, to my surprise.

In my database I already have 80, so I was very surprised by the quantity. Then we had to assess the quality. So I had criteria, I told you about them earlier, my tools also had to be hostable. I was also interested in the community that existed around the tool. So finally I made my own little ranking, putting my little stars in my database and there are a few tools that stood out.

Céline Delval

Walid : I’m thinking about it, I didn’t say it in the preamble, a little disclaimer for listeners who aren’t used to podcasting, at some point we’ll start talking about licenses etc. I refer you to theepisode with Raphaël Semeteys and Gonéri Le Bouder on the introduction to the free software business model in which Raphaël talks about the method he created 20 years ago which is called QSOS to make a qualification and selection of open source software, which is exactly what Céline did. So there’s this open source guide that we were talking about, that we’re a part of, that’s more or less active. We also try to be on meet-ups, we didn’t say it, but there are also a lot of meet-ups in big cities in France and we try to talk about these topics when we can.

That’s it, and so we invite people to come on Slack and join us, and if they’re interested in coming knock-knock and come and discuss with us on these topics, whether you’re an expert or just a person who is interested, to get information, it will be with great pleasure.

If we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of the subject, why are people interested in free and open source tools when we talk about our codes? And there are several topics that stand out, at least from the conversations we’ve had. Some are related to regulations, such as the GDPR for example. We’re going to see all the people who are interested in controlling their data, knowing where their data is going to be, where their data is going to go, because these SaaS tools are a bit magical, but where they go, where are they hosted, where the data transits, etc. It’s not always easy to know. Sometimes it’s written in small letters, you have to look for it, sometimes you don’t even know where exactly the data is. So there is potentially a need for transparency. Céline, that’s kind of what you said at the beginning, well you have constraints to the power of 1000, but that’s kind of what you said at the beginning in the end.

Céline : I didn’t go to open source by choice. I’m not tech, so I’m not aware, I don’t have any liabilities or exchanges with developers who could have brought me to this subject. SaaS is really the easy way out, it’s perfect when you’re not tech, you put in your email and go. So I was kind of constrained and forced to go into this open source world and it scared me a little bit. It was very exciting to go into this new world and then philosophy, I may have adopted it now, but I remain a non-contributor. We can talk about this open source aspect. How can a no-coder contribute to an open source tool? Because the basis is to contribute. So, I may have strayed a little bit from your question, but in any case, I wanted to make it clear that I, open source, went there out of obligation. And then, finally, I made it my business and I found a few tools that go well with the needs I encounter.

Why are people interested in Open Source?

Walid : It works. Arthur, what do you mean about why people would go to free open source tools?

Arthur : Well, I can give some reasons why we went, anyway. So already, there is a part that is often dealt with, and that is the self-hosting and GDPR part. It’s important to know that today self-hosting is not exclusively open source, it will speak anyway to the people who listen to us. As soon as companies play the game of having containers, at least dockers or

Other tools available are the possibility of deploying tools on the cloud of the various customers. So we find ourselves in the configuration where we have like a SaaS but at home. On the other hand, the difference between a tool that you will deploy at home that is a private publisher, let’s say, and a tool that will be open source, is the level of control that you will be able to exercise over the application. That is to say, with a tool that we will just deploy closedly, we can be sovereign over the data, so effectively the data will always be in the place where we want, we can put more or less the level of redundancy and security that we want.

On the other hand, when you turn to solutions that are going to be open source, then you control all the code. And so it’s broader than data sovereignty alone. Because basically, all the tools allow, the ones that are in this, is to export data, so you can put it wherever you want. But, even if they go a little further by exporting even JSON, YAML, you don’t have the metadata anyway, you’re going to lack a certain number of things, contexts, to be able to reconstruct your basic zone schemas.

With open source, you can go into a little more detail. And so for us, it’s been useful in a lot of different use cases. For a customer who was heading straight for Black Friday, they had to change part of the tool performance. Basically, the back tools all had pretty much the same performance. We needed to go a little further and we corrected the performance in the tools we had.

Arthur Rouzoul

Another part, a use case in particular: there was a need to modify the tool’s interface. This modification of the interface, it is not feasible when the code is closed, it is feasible when the code is open. And another thing that can be that simple is the easier integration of plugins or features that are already existing or elsewhere. As soon as you have access to the source code, it’s easier to integrate new modifications, to modify existing ones than when you start with a private tool.

So for us, I think it goes beyond the GDPR constraint alone. We needed to go open source more for performance and customization reasons than for GDPR reasons because we were already able to do it with closed tools.

Walid : Alexis, do you have anything to say about why people turn to free tools?

Alexis: To follow up on what Arthur said, it’s really interesting that you’re an expert in housing issues and everything because I think it’s really one of the issues around all of this, at least that sometimes brings people in.

Another reason is also the financial side, which is that in fact often all SaaS tools obviously charge in relation to data limits, performance etc. And so in fact we can often go beyond these limits with tools that we will be able to host ourselves, whether they are open source or not, but the fact of hosting yourself often allows you not to be dependent on your limits and therefore to be able to scale and save money, etc. Or even, for example, Airtable, there are limits, the number of rows you can have in a database: you just can’t cross, even if you want to pay. In fact, there is a limit, and it is a hard one. If you host, well, an alternative, because Airtable doesn’t allow you to be hosted on your own servers or containers, etc. So there you have it, that may be another reason to extend what I was saying.

Then, another reason that I often see and that I find, sometimes I want to play devil’s advocate a bit and maybe also defend some proprietary tools, there is a reason that is philosophical. I see a lot when we do webinars for associations that want, as a matter of principle, not to use American tools or proprietary tools. And that’s something I completely agree with from a philosophical point of view. However, as I said once again, we only train today in proprietary and American tools, I think. And so because I also think that today, and I really hope that this will change, also what’s important is the result, it’s what we do with it. And so sometimes it’s true that I see associations for example get a little too bothered and use tools that are much less suitable, or even stay on their old tools rather than switch to Airtable which can help them.

It’s not to advertise Airtable, because it’s a tool where there are starting to be serious alternatives but let’s say new generation database tools rather than staying on Google Sheet. Plus, it’s a bit of a dilemma because they want to use Google but not other tools. But here’s the thing, it’s difficult. Quite frankly, I sincerely hope that there is a possible future without the GAFAMs, I support various associations etc. But it’s a bit difficult, so I agree with the philosophical principle, and at the same time you have to ask yourself the right questions. And the GDPR, by the way, we often talk about the GDPR, we must not forget that the GDPR mainly concerns the data of individuals. When you’re in a B2B setting, for example, that doesn’t apply. And again, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use open source tools when you can, or host it yourself. But it’s the same on the question of hosting, and I’m curious to know a little more about what you do at WebCapsule, but for associations, it’s completely…

I take the example of associations because that’s kind of what I see, but it would be the same for ETIs, VSEs, SMEs… Hosting an instance yourself, I don’t know for example of n8n or Baserow, is technically almost impossible. Seeing, it’s even dangerous, if they do it wrong, that’s the data problems etc. So there you have it, there’s a little bit of this dilemma but I think we’re going to come back to it. But in any case, there are only good reasons, I want to say somewhere, to be interested in free, open source alternatives.

Walid : It’s indeed a big subject, I think we need to talk about it again later on the question of how to contribute because taking an open source tool and taking it in SaaS and not hosting it at home, is a form of contribution. Because we’re going to pay the publisher revenues that will be recurring revenues, which will allow them to develop a tool that will then be able to open source and that other people will be able to host at home and effectively know its limit.

Indeed, hosting an n8n for example, which is a tool, we’ll talk about it later, but it’s not easy. And having a level of service equivalent to what they do on the SaaS platform is not within the reach of the first comer. From the beginning of the discussion, we understand that these tools, already one is easier when you come from the tech world and two, to know well I think its limits. You have to take an interest in it, you have to look at it and potentially you have to be accompanied by people who know how to do it.

Alternatives to a proprietary tool

One word I wanted to talk about a little bit in the panorama of these different solutions and these different tools, we’ll come back to this a little later, is the “alternatives to”. It’s something you find a lot in free or open source tools, both. My tool is an alternative to Airtable, it’s an alternative to Zapier etc. And so in fact we’re going to end up with 4, 5, 6, 7 tools that are all alternatives to the same tools and which sometimes doesn’t honor them since, I was still talking about it yesterday with someone, being an alternative to Zapier which is therefore an automation tool that is the most well-known but which is also one of the most limited and well it’s not necessarily an advantage. It would be better to be an alternative to other tools that are perhaps closer functionally.

So there you have it, this subject of alternatives, everyone wants to be an alternative to a known tool because it’s easy to understand, but in the end the competition between free tools, it plays to the full and it’s potentially more difficult to stand out too. I don’t know if any of you want to add something to this before we move on?

Alexis : I’m just illustrating what you’re saying with the example of Zapier. Zapier is an automation tool so it’s actually very accessible. There are two alternatives that I find interesting, which are quite recent. There’s one called ActivePieces and there’s one called Automatish. And in fact, Automatish is literally a clone of Zapier, but it wants to be open source, etc. And I think it’s a bit of a shame, I pretty much agree with what you’re saying. On the one hand, it’s a marketing issue, but it’s also, somehow you’re cloning weaknesses. Whereas ActivePieces, they’re trying to get inspired, I feel like, I don’t know them, but different, things that are good in Make, in n8n, in Zapier, with a level of accessibility quite close to that of Zapier, but somewhere that’s better. It’s a tool that’s younger, but that I find extremely promising, for example. And so it’s really this type of tool where you can get inspired and try to put yourself in the same category and not clone stupidly.

Arthur : We also really like ActivePieces on the Webcapsule side, so we can recommend it.

The same analysis as Alex, I find that presenting yourself as “I’m the open source alternative to”, even at the marketing level, I don’t see why it’s very interesting because anyway you place the other tool at a delay because you say to yourself I’m going to deploy the features that are deployed in the tool at a time. I don’t have the same marketing power, I don’t have the same visibility and so I find it more interesting to go on exploit because there are a lot of added values in being open source and to go in that direction to find the economic model that will go well. ActivePieces is in the process of making an open core, at the beginning it was 100% open source, now it is having features a little bit in the enterprise. Let’s go, so you have a tool that is autonomous, that works, and then they’re going to find a way to make people who can pay, who want to pay for that service, pay. And I think that’s much smarter than trying to make an “alternative to” because then you’re going to drown in the mass.

Code export options

Walid : Absolutely, I think the best example is on alternatives to Airtable. I don’t know how many there are, but there are many and which ones to choose, why choose them and everything. At this point, you have to start spending a lot of time, looking at the tools or talking to the right people to get an idea of which tool you’re going to choose. It’s not easy and it’s much easier to go and take Airtable because everyone takes Airtable.

And there’s another case that we haven’t talked about and I’d like to say a few words, I think it’s the case of code export. And I think, Arthur, you’re in a pretty good position to talk about it, since you use a tool called Plasmic that allows you to do that. So, if you want to explain that part a little bit.

Arthur : I’d love to, yes. There’s the export of code, let’s say, private, private editor, and the export of code that will be open source or at least free. There are tools that export code privately, WeWeb is one of them.

Walid : Yes, WeWeb absolutely.

Arthur : who does a code export that hosts itself very well. There are services that allow this very easily, Vercel or other it works very well. I think they’re doing it more for marketing and to show no white too, because when we’re going to use WeWeb, we’re going to leave it on WeWeb servers in general and what’s going to be hosted behind it, since it’s static, which is also going to be more with the back.

On the other hand, we will use tools like Plasmic, there will not only be code export but also there will be the hosting of the builder (LDLR: the interface for creating applications).

Walid : Wait Plasmic, you can just explain in a few words what Plasmic is?

Arthur : It’s a website builder, I don’t know exactly how to say I’m sorry in French. Like WeWeb, like FlutterFlow, like many other applications, it allows you to build web interfaces to build web apps and it connects to any back or at least data source to make an application that runs well on the internet. It’s really 100% front-end, what it allows you to do that WeWeb doesn’t allow you to do, so it’s to do the hosting of the builder and therefore of the tool itself, so to make some modifications. Besides, the code that is exported is code, there is Nuxt, you can put it in React, there are many ways to export it. And it’s directly editable, it’s well structured. It’s a relatively new tool, it was released in 2019 and is completely open source in December 2023. Compared to the fashion which is rather “I’m going to privatize myself”, here they have taken the opposite path, it is very interesting because we will be able to overload it, we will be able to complete it with libraries and it allows us to go further in the front logic than what will be allowed by a simple export of tools from a closed publisher such as Weweb, even if the Weweb editor does it very well and the code that is exported is sufficient on its own. I don’t know if that was clear.

Walid : Yes, it was clear. Alexis, do you want to add things or not?

Alexis : Just to sum up, maybe to reiterate what Arthur said in another way, we have to distinguish between the creative tool and what we produce. The authoring tool, for example, WeWeb is a proprietary tool since it is hosted in SaaS, etc. You can’t get access to the creator’s code. On the other hand, you can export the code of what you produce and host it yourself. It’s true that it makes a big difference. It doesn’t involve the same constraints, and especially if we come back to this question of the GDPR, it’s not the same constraints because when you use WeWeb, you don’t store data there, and if you export the code, a priori it’s something that works well.

Again, I think that sometimes there is a little bit of bad design, and we say to ourselves, oh yes, there is a little self-censorship I find sometimes in the use of tools, but we have to make a distinction and see what we really want to host. And besides, as Arthur said, it’s easier to host code, especially for the frontend part, static code that has been generated, than to host an application, well, things like that. So there are also subtleties that make it more or less accessible to non-technical people.

Walid : It’s true that I’m always looking at it a little bit, will non-technical people be able to get out of it or not. Céline, do you want to add something?

Céline : No, I’m out of the game now, you’re talking about code, code export, what do you want me to do with code?

Alexis : No, but it’s important when Céline says that too, it still reflects in the No-code community. And maybe that’s why I found it funny that Céline when you said earlier: “I was kind of forced to take an interest in open source”. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s not a very lively subject and it’s more and more so since there are people like you, Walid, who are a bit technical, who have this background.

But it’s true that there are a lot of people in the No-code community, already some don’t necessarily know what open source means and don’t necessarily understand the issues and everything, and so that’s why it’s great to do this episode and to also have a little bit of counterpoint and see where it’s accessible or not. And then it has to remain a compass for me. Céline’s profile is the profile that made no-code a no-code today. You have to be able to use open source no-code tools, even if you don’t know how you’re going to host it, even if you don’t know how you’re going to customize it, a lot of specific aspects of the code. And if you’re able to allow people who aren’t technical to use these tools, but also people who are more technical to come and take an interest in these tools, then you really win. You can’t say, “no-code, now we’re going to abstract it and it’ll only be for developers”, that would be forgetting the number one virtue which is to make people who don’t usually code collaborate and who will contribute to the development of applications because they are in contact with the need in part of the sudden.

Business models

Walid : So the next point, this is one of the main topics of the podcast, is the business models and that’s where it gets, it starts to get interesting. We talked earlier about the fact that there are historical tools, we talked for example about tools like Convertigo, which is a tool that has been around for quite a long time, but there are others. But most of the tools that we talk about and that we know in the community anyway, are tools that are rather recent. And actually, these recent tools, they mostly start with an open core model, or pretty quickly they come on open core models. So the open core model, to put it simply, there is the core of the application which is free software and there are features that are not accessible – which can be free by the way – but which are only accessible when you pay for a subscription, a license, you call it what you want.

There are quite a few free tools that pass on this, even most of them do, we started talking about it a little bit earlier for Plasmic. And so this model, it comes with the fact that these tools from the start, have drawn conclusions a little bit, and we talk about this in other episodes of the podcast, they have drawn a little bit of conclusions from what has been done before, which is that to develop a tool, you need money, and to have money, You have to think about how you’re going to make money from the start, and maybe you’ll also look for investors right away.

And in licensing, we have something that is quite interesting, which is that we have tools that have licenses, what we call permissive, so licenses that will typically allow us to include parts of the application for example in proprietary tools, why not. So with permissive licenses like MIT, AGPL type, even BSD type for some tools like FlutterFlow for example, I was quite surprised. So here we can mention tools like Baserow which is a European tool, it’s Dutch people who do this, it’s a database management system, a competitor of Airtable for example, a tool like Airtable Supabase, so there which is a rather low-code database tool that is a competitor to Firebase, tools like ActivePieces that we talked about.

And next to that, we’re going to find tools that have more copyleft licenses, so licenses that we also call viral, that is, “ok, if you want to modify my code, you have to put this code must also be redistributed on the same license”. And there, we’re going to find tools like Automatish, Budibase which is also a dApp Builder and database tool, Tooljet, ditto. So it’s interesting to see that tools can take quite different paths, i.e. very permissive licenses whose goal is that people don’t bother too much with these issues of what is the virality of my code etc. I just want people to use it. And other projects that take viral licenses right away. I don’t know if any of you want to add to that.

Alexis : I have a more orderly remark, let’s say a bit philosophical, or I don’t know, a reaction to the question of business models. I’ll take an example, I prefer to illustrate things, but I’ll take the example of Baserow where I had the opportunity to talk to founders, etc. And actually, I think it’s a bit of a shame that they’re literally reproducing Airtable, that’s a first thing, it’s a bit more the clone category, a bit like we said, even if I have the impression that they’re trying to do things a little differently, but hey, it’s still clone, let’s say it. But it’s also a company that has raised funds, if I don’t mean nonsense, and therefore only has interest, like Airtable, for corporate customers, which is the case for many publishers. And so it’s true that it’s something that I kind of regret, that’s my community side, but it also comes from the open source side and my attraction for this very… We share and value the makers, the people who use the tools, etc. Well, also, open source is about contributors, and contributors can be on many different levels, we’re not just developers, you said it a little bit Walid.

That’s it, and I think that’s a bit of a shame, it’s true that I’m a little disillusioned let’s say about some things, that is to say that open source is not synonymous with unconditional sharing and everything, it’s still business in some cases. And it’s true that I feel much closer to small tools that haven’t raised any foundation, that are more Boosted (Editor’s note: who have developed without raising funds) but who are close to their community, who exchange, who take into account what they are told, etc. That’s kind of my reaction. I took their example, it’s just the first one that comes to mind, but there are others where this is the case. And it’s true that we expect it from proprietary publishers. We’ve seen it, there are a lot of people who have pivoted to very corporate things, very aggressive on this, which have left us a little bit aside. It’s a bit of a shame when you see that from those who claim to be open source.

Arthur : Unfortunately, the tool, whether it’s open source or not, as Walid said very well earlier, it needs to have money to develop and finally its roadmap will adapt it to its customer. Today, the customer of open source companies that have an open core will be the big companies and so I think they will turn the development of their application in this direction. But then there are some who do very well, ActivePieces does it very well, it is very close to its community and listens to it a lot but from the moment there is a dichotomy that has to be made between your user base and your customer base, there are trade-offs to be made. Trade-offs often go in the direction of investors, i.e. develop for your clients

Alexis : who pays the most, develops for what pays the most. But that’s true, you’re right to say it, but it’s a bit of a problem I have with business in general, start-ups that raise funds, and that only have it for their investors in the end. Well, it’s normal, you have a certain pressure, there are people who have asked you for money, well they hope to see in return. But it’s true that it’s also just so that the people who listen, they don’t necessarily know about the open source movement, are lucid. And I totally agree, as you say, there are models that exist that are quite possible, well, to do open source stuff.

There are a lot of open source companies out there that make a good living. But that’s a question after a little more philosophical. What does it mean to make a good living? How much do we want to earn? I think we’re doing the different thing.

I think that every year Y Combinator publishes the companies they would like to see appear and this year there is a focus on open source companies to see how they could support them in their commercialization. So open source is coming back even if it has been a little bit put aside I think the last two years since those were lean times, without money. Maybe it’s going to come out in force a little bit more in the coming years. By the way, it seems to me that Activepieces made Y Combinator.

Arthur : yes last year.

Walid : Once again on this subject of economic models, the episode on the different economic models gives a good vision of the choices we can have not to do open core for example. Because there are companies that work well and can do it. Yes, Céline.

Céline : Yes, I have a question for you. n8n is often said, I hear very often, n8n is a bit open source, but it’s Fair-code. They present themselves as Fair-code and more open source. Can you explain to me what is behind the fair code?

Walid : You’ve just given me a perfect transition. The two points I wanted to address were proprietary tools that become free and free tools that become proprietary.

If we take the free tools that become proprietary, then n8n is an automation tool, a competitor of Zapier and Make, so a tool that is more technical. Initially, it was a tool that had an Apache license, and already I think that on the Apache license, there were restrictive covenants. They went on a license, they went on Fair-code, and Fair-code is a license that is not free. There are restrictions, there are restrictions on use. I’m not a Fair Code specialist, but typically if you want to do a commercial competitor service, you have to deal with them, you have to potentially contract agreements with them. So Fair Code, they say it very clearly, is inspired by free software. The code is available, but it’s not free software. You don’t have all the freedoms that are in free software.

Alexis : Just for the record, by the way, this Fair-code license, it was invented, it was written by the people of n8n. It’s not a big license that’s widely used as far as I know.

The case of Directus

Walid : There’s another case that I wanted you to say a few words about, Arthur, and that’s another tool called Directus. If you can explain what Directus is and what your relationship is to Directus because I think it’s quite interesting.

Arthur : Directus, I think if you go, those who are listening to us, go to the Directus website, so, I think their branding evolves every month, they try to find exactly their market or at least try to position themselves from a marketing point of view, but it’s a backend as a service in broad strokes, it’s an API builder and it has to be used like that, it’s placed on a database and it allows you to manage roles, permissions, a certain number of workflows in a fairly fine-grained way. In any case, we use it as a backend as a service. The way we used Directus is a bit different because at the beginning we used it in a generic way and in May of last year Directus changed its license (LDLR: they switched to a BUSL). They switched to a license that is more completely open source while it is open source for many small companies, the one that generates less than 5 million euros in turnover. No idea how they control it and if it’s aimed at subsidiaries or if it’s groups, well not very clear, but in any case it sets a limit on revenue and so it constrained the use for slightly larger groups, that’s who we were going to use it, since it’s open source, We also deployed it with larger groups, and it didn’t necessarily send a message of safety, because if they were able to modify the license like that from one day to the next, there was nothing to prevent it from also modifying it two days later for slightly stronger constraints. So to protect ourselves from that, we made a fork called Directus9 because the level of the application suited us very well for the backend as a service part. Now, what they are doing and contributing is rather on visual, dataviz or other parts that are less important to us, since there are other tools that do it very well.

Alex said earlier that there are two types of tools, let’s say no-code or low-code. In fact, we divide them into five verticals that complement each other with:

  • the forehead,
  • the back,
  • workflows,
  • Dataviz
  • AI.

And the Directus9 suits us very well on the backend part of the service. And so from that fork, we started to add the features that we were missing, improve the performance, quite noticeable. And it is now the tool on which we are based, since it fulfills most of the functionalities we are looking for. And we’re starting to have a micro-community on this Directus 9 since we don’t communicate about it at all.

But we contribute, at least all four of us, it’s our way of also contributing to the free project and continuing to do 100% open source. And that’s it, that doesn’t stop us from contributing to the main Directus from time to time.

Walid : It’s interesting, I think they’ve changed their license, they’ve taken a BUSL, a Business Source License, which is no longer free software, just in the same way as n8n, it’s not free software, it doesn’t meet the Open Source Definition.

And to finish on this subject, there are proprietary SaaS tools but with free bricks. I’m thinking of a tool called JetAdmin, for example, which is a tool that also allows you to make internal applications. This tool actually has a part that allows you to connect, for example, your internal databases with their tool which is in SaaS and this tool is in a very permissive free license, by the way I think it’s an MIT, or something really very permissive. This is to make sure that you can incorporate it into your products that are not free. The goal of this is just the adoption, the adoption of your product, there is no notion of really looking for contribution. That’s more, I’ll give you the code to make sure you understand what we’re doing and to be insured, but behind it it’s not at all one… This tool for example, JetAdmin is not free software at all.

Free tools by No-code and Low-code domain

Walid : That’s it. We talked a little bit theoretically, we mentioned a few tools, I wanted us to give a little bit of the equivalences of some proprietary tools, so mainly that, by putting them a little bit in different categories. We started with the category of app builders, the tools that allow you to create applications, either internal applications, or potentially applications that are also open to the outside world. There are a number of tools. What I found was free tools like AppSmith, Tooljet, Budibase, Grist, Plasmic. So we’ve talked a little bit about Plasmic, we haven’t talked too much about Grist yet.

What I wanted to know is, do you see any others? And if so, I’d like us to do a little focus with Céline on Grist as well.

Alexis : No, I don’t think so.

Arthur : There are certainly a lot of them, but maybe less known than these 4, and that’s already a good base.

Alexis : After that, there are things to make websites, but here, I think that what is interesting is perhaps more things that are really a little more application-oriented.

Walid : I called it a website builder for websites. We’ll talk about that a little bit later. Do you want to explain what Grist is?

Céline : I called it a relational database management tool, the same way I would have defined Airtable… just like Airtable has taken that route too. This allows the creation of interfaces. Then we can extend the interfaces to the name App. At least within the department, I don’t really have the right to use the term “application” because there are people who make applications. That’s it, so I’m saying I’m making interfaces. Let’s stay in his place.

Still, I do have experience with Grist because, as I had to do some research to build my stack, my goal was to have a database tool, an automation tool and a front-end tool. The front-end tool, I gave up since I don’t make apps. The automation tool, I’m turning to n8n but I’m already having trouble getting Grist integrated so we’re going to take it one thing at a time.

So Grist, why? As I mentioned earlier, it’s because Grist already enjoys “popularity” in the public domain. I mentioned the local authorities, a team of devs from this team who are very invested in the development of the tool. Grist actually allows self-hosting. For me, it was a big problem that I had, which was to have a tool that was efficient and also self-hosting. So Grist, let’s say it’s a bit of a frugal design in the Soviet style of the 80s, if I was mean, but I took this tool in love and now, I recognize its power and I’m less careful about the aesthetic aspect. In fact, I’ve used Airtable a lot and it’s true that Airtable still has a nice side, you have the impression that the tool is smiling at you, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, it’s less the case in a Grist. What does Grist do? Grist allows you to create databases to compose tables so it will speak to you if you know Airtable, very simply. It also allows you to create different views. The interest of the interface that Grist offers, when I say interface, is that it will be the business tool that I will create. What Grist allows is to display several tables of data on the same page and link them together. I’ll give you a classic example that my teacher Alex could use. The list of authors and the list of books.

There you have it, you go to the same page displayed, in grid a list of authors. By clicking on an author, you will have the other table that updates with books by that author. I’ll keep it short. But Grist is also very powerful in terms of formulas. At the formula level, you can use Python or Excel functions. So if you don’t know Python like I did when you get to the tool, you’ll be able to find your way around by making Excel formulas knowing that it offers the help of AI to build your formulas. Little by little, we started using Python. I don’t want to tell you that I know Python now, but now in my interfaces, I use a lot of formulas in Python. Thanks, chatGPT. So there you have it, I take all the help I can and little by little, I get some technique into my tool.

And Grist, what is also very appreciable is that the user management is very fine, the users’ rights. As in Airtable, we will be able to go from read-only to managing or modifying the structure. For me, it’s very, very important because I make business tools and I don’t want my users to be able to break a formula. Because to build my business tools that I’m going to do on Grist, I often start with my users’ Excel files and I see how they use their Excel with their data column and then all of a sudden, we don’t have a formula anymore, we have a hard input number. Well, I don’t want them to be able to do this kind of manipulation in the tools anyway. So Grist, really, it’s very, very powerful and it also has a community. community, I’m lucky both internally on our public Slack called Chap and you also have on Discord an international channel and open to all on the tool. So that’s very nice, as in other communities, you always have someone to help you and move the schmilblick forward. So Grist, I was reluctant at first when I put my nose in it, it was boring etc. But really powerful on business tools.

So really, if you have to look for a tool, you need hosting, you need a solid tool on processes and formulas, a display that is consistent and that nevertheless, even if it looks like Excel, will help your users who are a little reluctant to change tools. I’m not saying that they’re going to find their tool exactly, but they’re going to have reference points on the grid format, for example, they’re going to find their way around. So, now I’m a little more convinced about Grist. If you’re looking for a tool, this one fits the bill.

Walid : Before you mentioned Grist, the first time we spoke, I had never heard of this tool. I don’t know if you, Alexis and Arthur, have heard of it, but I’ve never heard of it.

Alexis : I tested it quickly, I don’t know if it was in a live game or something like that, I don’t know how I came across it, I think it’s open source. But I admit that it didn’t really catch my attention since I didn’t have the constraint of having to use it in a way. But I had found some interesting things, maybe the side a little too close to the spreadsheet put me off a little bit. Again, it’s all about constraints and the choice of tools too, it’s about which tools we can use, at what time, in what context, and I found it quite nice the return of Céline in relation to that. If there are people who are under the same constraints, that’s probably a good solution.

The role of AI

Alexis : and I’d just add a small point, it’s important what you said, on AI, we’re not necessarily going to talk about it but obviously it’s the buzzword of the moment, and I find that AI in our context sometimes helps to get through this little technical step. There you were talking about formulas, that’s indeed the power of Grist maybe it’s these very powerful formulas, powerful often means not very accessible and that’s where AI can help and maybe on other things to cross this little bit of a step.

As we’ve been saying since the beginning, there are things for now in these open source tools that are a little bit technical still and maybe AI can help in some cases.

Arthur : AI, I’d look at it a little bit further. Typically Github’s Copilot, it’s great for the developer. So you have a 100% visual thing and it continues in the logic of the developer who reduces his code production in absolute terms. And he’s going to switch to an architect role and his role is going to be how to design the application well but always spending less time on the code. And in the end, it’s the same logic you have on no-code. It’s just that on the cooperation between AI and no-code, I would like to see the product teams that build a large part of the tool, exactly what Céline is describing, and the developer has to come and put the custom brick, he will continue to do no-code in a certain way using the Copilot, and coding as little as possible. So we continue in this logic, except that on the one hand you have the no-code interface which is visual and which does not require you to read code, and next to that you have an AI that will produce code that asks to be able to read it but which will allow you not to need the written word.

Walid : I have to admit that I took the wrong line earlier because I had noted Grist as being in database and not app builder but there you go.

Alexis : It’s a bit in between, it’s true as you said Céline, it’s a bit like Airtable, everything changes very quickly, the positioning changes very, very quickly.

Walid : That’s what I was getting at, is that tools like Airtable, Baserow, they do the database but then they will also give you the possibility to make your applications. So these are areas that are completely changing and even the appellations are changing too. So there you have it. So we talked about Plasmic earlier, a very small focus, I haven’t directly used AppSmith, but I have former colleagues who use AppSmith a lot, who are quite happy with it. So there you have it, it’s a tool that I’ve personally heard a lot of good things about.

Automation tools

Walid : The other big part is the automation tools. I think there are things to be said. So we’ve talked about n8n, with the restrictions on what n8n is. Activepieces, we started talking about it, Automatisch a little bit. Do you want to say a few more words about these tools, Arthur or Alexis?

Alexis : I’ve already talked a little bit about it, so maybe Arthur if you have an opinion on that. Knowing that I tested only ActivePieces, honestly, Automatisch I was a bit put off by the fact that I found it to be instantly a Zapier clone.

Arthur : We were on n8n for a month, we arrived on ActivePieces too and I didn’t have the opportunity to test Automatisch.

Alexis : Are you using it in production today?

Arthur : Yes, we use it in production. There are some initiatives that are quite interesting, that are starting to come out. For us, it was a lack that we also had in our apps.

It was, so I don’t know what the project is called now, at least when I had it, it was Fakerepo, a repository in which the developer will come and code a certain number of functions that exposes a single API so that no-coders can come and call the features. And I think that was something that was missing even for ActivePieces or even for n8n because there was the possibility to add nodes, there was the possibility to do a certain number of custom things, but to go and find these functions we have. There are still good things to be done and I find this a good example of a bridge that can exist between no-code and standard code since it is to say how will a coder allow a no-coder to have even more power in the realization of his device.

Walid : So for me, it’s one of my daily subjects, how do you delegate responsibility management to people who are typically in the business, how do you delegate responsibility management to them. In our case, for example, we don’t make n8n available to our colleagues in the field, for example. Which means, and this is really our daily life, that when you know that a tool is going to be used by the business and you want the business to maintain this tool, well we don’t choose n8n, we choose another tool, in our case Make for example. Each tool has its own area of expertise and there is indeed a lot of learning to be done.

So the devs are already making sure that they take ownership of these tools, that they understand their interest and that it is an additional skill in their portfolio. And so if we can have free tools with nicer interfaces than what we have for example on n8n and more accessible, that’s a real subject for me. So I started to test ActivePieces a bit, I found it quite nice but I was wondering about the number of integrations there were, which was for the moment maybe a little limited, so it’s good if you make a lot of HTTP connections and you consume APIs, but if you want to put it in the hands of people who are not technical, It’s always a bit of a limitation. Automatisch, I think you started it once, but I don’t know if there are people who use it. If so, they will be able to come forward.

Arthur : What you’re saying about Make is very interesting, and it’s also a bit like the Convertigo or Grist case law that was mentioned earlier.

There’s also something I don’t know why but we French publishers in any case, I have the impression that the software is not pretty. They’re very functional, they work great. Convertigo is really a success, we mentioned it quickly but I think they have applications that have lasted for 7-8 years, they are in the backends of big companies. But like Grist, it’s not pretty, whereas tools like Make or Airtable. As Céline mentioned Airtable, you feel like he’s welcoming you with open arms and giving you a hug, and I don’t know where that comes from.

Alexis : isn’t it a stigma a bit of a historical thing of open source what well I mean there are a lot of open source tools that historically always the interfaces are not very neat but I don’t know where it comes from I couldn’t explain it beyond the cliché simply that often the devs are not great graphic artists and great designers.

Arthur : yes, but Directus, we’ve already said that, it’s pretty pretty.

Walid : For example, the difference between Make and n8n comes from the people who created the projects. Make at the beginning they were integrators, so they were people who weren’t developers.

They made a tool for integrators and n8n was a person, a German, who was more of a sys(tem) admin and who is a rather technical person, who didn’t need to expose his tool to people who weren’t technical. So he’s made a tool that’s closer to a tool that’s made and designed for a developer. If you’re a developer, you take a tool like n8n, you can find your way around right away.

Alexis : I think n8n has become very… there has been a lot of work I think from an interface point of view on N8n.

Walid : It’s improved a lot over the last few years but there’s still a bit of work to be done.

Alexis : I’m a bit biased because I’m a developer, so obviously I don’t have the same views, but I don’t know.

Website builders

Walid : The clock is ticking, to continue, the penultimate domain is what we call website builders, so the tools that allow you to make sites, landing pages, etc. So there’s a tool called WebStudio which is a competitor of Webflow. I don’t know him at all, I don’t know if any of you already have experience with this? Personally, I don’t know him.

Alexis : I haven’t tested it but from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen, it’s indeed a very serious alternative. Of course, Webflow is way ahead of the game, it’s a tool that has been working on it for almost 10 years, but I’ve seen a lot of people, especially webflowers, who talk about Webstudio in a good way or are quite impressed by what is possible. So there you have it, and once again we always come back to the same thing, here it’s true that the interest of WebStudio is that you can also host the builder you produce. But Webflow, you can export your code into Webflow. And in Webflow there’s also a lot of things, there’s DevLink which allows devs to develop React components, and then it can go the other way, you can design React components in Webflow, export them to put them in your project, etc. So, always the same, it depends on where the constraint is, but somehow Webflow, obviously, is not an open source tool at all, but it doesn’t prevent you from producing things that can be hosted wherever you want, etc. If it’s a need.

Walid : And there’s a second tool that, it’s true, I had forgotten that you mentioned, Alexis, and with which I had an exchange on Mastodon with, precisely, one of the founders, it’s Silex. I don’t know if you’ve ever used it?

Alexis : It’s a tool that’s been around for a very, very long time, I think long before it was called no-code. I think he’s a Frenchman, right? There’s a Frenchman.

Walid : He’s a Frenchman, absolutely.

Alexis : He’s on the slack of no code France. I admit that I have seen it from time to time, but I have never used it. I admit that I have kept an image of it, but once again, we come back to this shot on the side of the design side, a little rustic, a little… That’s it, and it’s true that it didn’t attract me too much, but it’s not good, I think, you also have to know sometimes how to go beyond design a little, and not stop at that, because sometimes we miss tools that can meet our constraints, etc. So I admit, I’d like to have some feedback from Silex, I don’t know, if he listens to us, I’d have to find his name, I didn’t care, there are so many people now in the community, I can’t get out of it anymore. Maybe that’s something of the open source guild, you see, organizing a demo of Silex is not only not only, if it’s a French guy who makes a product, in addition to the fact that he says it’s free, you’d have to look at the license, but anyway, so it could tick a lot of cases, it would be nice to present it.

Arthur : Absolutely. I think, then, to check as well, but that one way to explain the design is that this tool was originally designed to work internally, that is to say that it is a tool that he made for himself, for his development agency. It seems to me that he has a development agency next door.

As soon as you are your own client, I think that the design requirements are reduced to a minimum and that we go directly to functionality. And it may come back to what you were saying earlier about the software publishing policy. That is, am I going to do it right away for a large number of users or am I going to do it internally for techs like the developer of the tool in question? Maybe that’s a clue to why it’s a little less sexy.

The Usability of Free Software and Designers

Alexis : I think there’s a question, but you’d have to find out about the software development teams, contributors, etc. We always come back to the notion of contributor. Are the designers, the people who are really very good, who sometimes work in startups, the people who are very good even in web design, are they themselves aware of open source? Are they attracted to it? Do they want to put their skills to the test or do they, and this is a big cliché, I’m sorry but they’re not just going to be attracted by the big salaries in startups that pay well? Because these are people who don’t actually come from this world, but I don’t know.

Walid: We’re going to talk to people about these subjects, it’s not easy to attract designers to free projects but there are some who are looking for these skills. I’m thinking of an episode on /e/OS, which is a degoogled Android OS, where founder Gaël Duval explains that from the start, as it’s a B2C project, he wanted developers who knew how to work on the interface and who knew how to make beautiful interfaces. So there are projects that do it, but it’s not everyone actually. But that’s a topic in its own right and it deserves a full episode. It goes back to Céline’s question, how do you contribute when you’re not a developer? There, a designer, how does he contribute to open source? Why he contributes, he can contribute too, is the other. If he doesn’t have a bit of intrinsic faith, it’s not always, after that it’s a question of motivation, philosophy, etc.

Free productivity tools

Walid: And that brings me to the last topic, which I put in, because it’s my questions and I spend a lot of time looking at these tools, I’m a Notion user, I really like this tool and I’m looking for free tools, so productivity tools, that allow me to stop using Notion. As much as we talk a lot about open source free automation tools, productivity has completely gone under the radar.

And I still wanted to mention that there are a few tools out there. There’s one called AppFlowy for example, there’s another one called AnyType, there’s also Affine, there’s Outline, they’re all different but they don’t do the same thing as Notion. Most of them are tools that allow for rather personal use.

I looked a lot at Anytype, which is a tool that is made by an association, it’s Swiss people who do this I think. It’s not bad at all, but like it’s for you and only for you. So it doesn’t completely answer that, but there’s also all the database notions, it really looks like, you can do the Notion imports, there’s a lot of stuff, but there you go. There are tools like Affine which is a tool that allows, which has a SaaS offer, which allows you to collaborate but there is no database and a priori from what I understand from discussions with former colleagues who use it, it’s not really the goal they are looking for, so that’s a bit dead too. No, it’s Outline, which doesn’t have a database a priori, so refine, there are others, and then there are historical tools, I’m typically thinking of tools like x-wiki, so which are people who have been around for a very, very long time, who come from code and who are thinking about a new interface. There was a conference at FOSDEM 2024 on the new interface which will be called Cristal and which would use the codes of Notion for example.

Alexis : As I haven’t tested any of these tools, I’m really not good at open source no-code, I haven’t tested any of these tools so I use Notion a lot.

The temptation to have too many features in a tool

Alexis : I’ve digressed a bit from the subject but it’s the notion of functionality you see and it’s interesting because I think that most no-code tools, as we’ve already mentioned for Airtable, etc., become too full of features. I’m not going to use the word gasworks because these tools are really well designed, but in Notion there’s a lot going on now. There are automations, you can get lost, and there’s a lot of things you don’t need. And when you don’t need it, you already tell yourself that you’re not paying for anything. All their AI stuff for example, I find it useless. Maybe one day it would be useful, but hey, you don’t have to pay, but there’s too much stuff.

I want to have less, and so it’s an opportunity, I find on the one hand open source tools, but in general, to make kind of, not clones of Notion but just to take, to make well a subset of what they serve.

Alexis Kovalenko

For example, there are people who only use Notion for note-taking, they don’t need to have databases and everything. There are a lot of people who don’t know what databases are. So, and I think that’s quite interesting and I hope that open source tools will rush a little bit on this because it’s an opportunity what, there are going to be more and more people I think who are going to be disappointed with the evolutions of the increased complexity of these code tools and therefore to go back to something at the bottom what, Lower down in a way, it’s a bit of innovation from below, the one that can be cheaper or free because you host them yourself, that’s what I think there’s a topic about that.

(Editor’s note: see the principles of KISS)

Arthur : That’s what we said on Direct. In fact, they chose a vertical, they are very good at this vertical and all the packaging that will be around it, it does not necessarily have any added value because there are other tools that will come to complete where they are not good.

And it’s better to have 5 tools that are super strong on each of the 5 verticals than one tool that tries to do a little bit of everything well.

Arthur Rouzoul

And I’m afraid that’s the case, we talked about Baserow earlier, they have this philosophy at the beginning where they were completely alternative to Airtable, now they’re trying to do flows, from the front, I hope they can honestly do it because it’s a nice tool.

Alexis : yes but you see me I think that if they hadn’t been… Baserow is a good example, I’m thinking about it, I would have hoped, but I’m not a businessman and everything, but I would have hoped that Baserow would stick to databases. Seeing that Airtable goes into databases, automations, interfaces, instead of following them in there, saying to yourself “we’re going to do only the database, we’re going to do it well” because there are people who want to do that.

Arthur : So do we. That’s it, for example. That’s what we were hoping for. And that’s a bit of a shame.

Céline : I don’t agree, Alex.

I cried with Baserow at the Nocode Summit because they were too close to an Airtable from 5 years ago. Whereas I’d like to use Airtable in my daily life, but I have the problems I explained to you and I can’t anymore. If Baserow had been hostable and really resembled what Airtable is, I would have gone for it. But they were too… At the time I had to choose a tool, Baserow, which has evolved very recently, was not advanced enough.

Alexis : Actually, I admit that it’s not a very good example, because in this case, I really like what Airtable has become, and so I don’t regret that it’s not just the database. A little less notion, for example, but it also depends on the context. That’s true, but in any case, I think it’s interesting to make applications with Airtable and if there was a free alternative, feature for feature, it wouldn’t be a problem. But there’s also an opportunity to do simpler things.

Walid : Great debate, anyway, I’m very interested in Notion’s competitors, there are some things that are very, very good. If it’s for taking notes, there are tools like Obsidian, like Joplin, there are plenty of free tools that are very very good too.

There are some really, really interesting things that I think are going to happen in the coming years.

Final Words

Walid : We’re coming to the end: that’s it, it’s the open forum for each of you. First of all, I’ll give the floor to Céline.

Céline : yes, so I want to address the non-tech no-coder. If you want to go open source, don’t expect to be able to easily host your tool. On the other hand, these tools are also often available in SaaS. So, go SaaS. That’s not bad. And it’s a good way to contribute as well.

Walid : Absolutely. Arthur, do you want to say something?

Arthur : For me, it’s going to echo our WebCapsule activity. It’s not self-promotion at all, but it’s more to say that we actually met with why we got into it, why we made this tool too: it’s because no-code has been confined to the field for a very long time. MVP or small tools, and now it is reaching a maturity where it can be taken into production. And the subject of going into production is a subject that comes with a lot of issues that Céline has just mentioned. And we’re working to make them back, to simplify, to allow this no-code to go into production, because we think it’s its future that’s going to be played out in it.

It’s going to be the industrialization of its processes, it’s going to be the integration and adoption by developers as well. And I think that code has a good future ahead of it if it manages to couple in a fairly simple way with the usual process of developers and that creates a bridge between developers and developers.

Walid : Absolutely, the usual processes of developers, I totally agree.

If all the tools could have environments, merges, and stuff like that, that would be great. Alexis?

Alexis : I regret not having a little more time to study all these things, so it was nice to have this exchange, thank you Walid. For me, we don’t yet have enough tools that are at a stage of maturity to be really accessible. That’s kind of my challenge, I’m a bit of a dreamer, so I’d like to have tools that are a little less business too, positioning that is a little less business, which obviously doesn’t prevent me from having viable business models. I’m a dreamer but I’m a realist, but I’d like tools that are a little close to communities, and at the same time open source. Anyway, there you have it, to be able to tick all the boxes. Unfortunately for the moment we haven’t found a perfect tool, but I think we’re getting closer, we’re getting closer to it little by little. And then you need one in each category, as Arthur said, there are several floors in this stack, but hey, there are leads, I think there are serious leads, so we’ll follow that, and that’s it. I think we’d have to do another episode in a year, two years, see where we’re at, (make) the balance sheet. I’m also following what Céline is going to do, because it’s also an interesting context, I think, because it’s very strict, very rigid. It forces you to really find and so you have to do some research that you can then share with us. It’s nice and right there the feedback was super interesting.

Arthur : Fit the circle into the square. Thank you very much Walid anyway for the invitation.

Walid : Well, with great pleasure, thank you to all three of you.

My conclusion on this is that it is quite a fascinating subject. What I find fascinating in these fields is how do we go about it, for example, for technical people to appropriate these technologies. What I also think is great is that my technical colleagues immediately ask themselves the right questions: how are we going to industrialize all this? This makes for some very interesting solutions. Often, in fact, the right solutions even come from the data team, for example, who find great solutions on the side. So it’s not necessarily no-code.

And the reflections on free tools, I think it’s very interesting to follow that since we’re kind of at the beginning, there’s a lot of things to do, there’s a lot of evangelism to do, so it’s a very interesting job to see this world evolve a little, so I hope that we’ll do more episodes on these subjects.

To conclude, for the listeners of Projet Libre, if you liked it, don’t hesitate to go to the website and look at the different social networks and contact me mainly Mastodon which is my main network, also LinkedIn. I’m very happy, I’ve wanted to do this episode for a long time. I wish all three of you a good evening. Thank you again and see you soon for new adventures….

This episode was recorded on February 20, 2024.


This podcast is published under the dual license Art Libre 1.3 or later – CC BY-SA 2.0 or later.

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