Taking stock and looking ahead

After a three-year beta, we've finally launched paid plans. In this post, we take stock of our current position and discuss what lies ahead, including the introduction of a PDF report designer, buttons that perform more complex actions through action formulas, better support for data and more.

We never expected the Calcapp beta to last more than three years.

However, during those three years, we learned an incredible amount from our beta testers and we wound up building a product we could not have imagined back in 2016. Usage — after a slow start — ultimately went through the roof and, at times, we struggled to keep up.

All this, combined with the incredible feedback we have gotten over the years, has resulted in a product we’re now proud to finally start charging for. We think it’s more full-featured and more free of bugs than most products that hit this milestone and we couldn’t have done it without our beta testers. Thank you.

By introducing paid plans, we are essentially asking the Internet for a job, so that we can continue working on Calcapp. We don’t have outside investors, we don’t run ads and we don’t sell the little information we collect on you through our analytics provider. That means that our business model is simple: we derive all our revenue directly from our customers, meaning that our sole financial incentive is to create a product that works well for our users.

There’s no product we’d rather work on than Calcapp, a product whose mission is to help you build products, all without requiring users to have been schooled in the ways of traditional programming.

Of course, there will always be a place for traditional programming (say, if you want to create an app builder), but we’re convinced that there’s a huge, largely untapped, space between spreadsheets and full programming languages. A space where the so-called citizen developers can add tremendous value to their businesses and organizations by creating custom-made apps.

Citizen developers may not be expert programmers, but they are experts in their particular fields. That makes them the perfect choice for building apps, all without having to communicate requirements to expensive external developers. Instead, apps can be teased out using Calcapp Creator.

We think that Calcapp is a capable product today, but there’s so much potential for it to improve. Read on to learn about our future plans.

Our short-term plans

In the short term, we will work on things that will never become apparent to our users. We will pay off technical debt, to ensure that we continue to have a well-engineered product that is easy to extend with new features. We will invest in more automated tests, so that new releases are even less likely than before to break existing features. We will investigate new technologies that have appeared since we broke ground on this incarnation of Calcapp, back in 2014, that can help us create a more compelling product.

We will also shift from being a company primarily building a new product to one maintaining a service our customers rely on. That means that we will work even harder to maintain stability. In service of that goal, we may consider introducing a “beta channel,” which customers can opt-in to in order to get new features faster, but at the risk of encountering bugs. Such a beta channel would help us keep the standard, stable channel free of problems.

To improve Calcapp at a faster clip, we’d like to grow our team. The number of open positions we’ll be able to offer will depend on the revenue we manage to derive from our new paid plans. Staffing up will take time away from feature work in the short term, though, but will greatly increase our development speed in the long term.

We will also work on mundane things like automating bookkeeping and tax reporting tasks, so that we get more time to do exciting feature work.

We have committed to doing two of those features:

Report designer

Reports are one of the most used features in Calcapp. They are also sadly underpowered, making our users jump through unnecessary hoops to achieve the results they’re after.

We want to introduce a report designer for PDF reports, where users get to design their own reports in an interface reminiscent of a word processor, complete with support for images. Somewhat like the mail merge feature in a word processor, we want to enable arbitrary Calcapp formulas to be inserted in reports. Imagine being able to reference fields stored in your app from a document-like report and perform calculations using Calcapp’s full range of formula functions — that’s what we’re going for.

With a competent report designer, we’re confident that users will build apps that send out invoices and cost proposals directly to their customers.

Action formulas

At present, buttons can only reset fields, send or open reports and invoke third-party products through services like Zapier. What if you’d like a button to navigate to a different panel, but only if a field is valid and display a message otherwise? What if you’d like to email a report and then reset all fields?

To realize this, we want to enable buttons to run special formulas we call action formulas. Action formulas will have access to a new class of formula functions we call action functions. What’s special about action functions is that they will be able to perform actions, like setting values, sending reports, navigating to different panels, showing popup messages and more. A single formula will be able to invoke multiple such functions. When used in conjunction with Calcapp’s rich library of existing functions, such as IF, you’ll be able to intelligently determine what actions to perform based on logical conditions you specify in your action formulas.

Long-term plans

In the long term, we see no reason why apps built with Calcapp should be less polished than apps built using traditional tools and no reason for them not to offer modern user interface constructs on par with the best native apps.

To get there, we will need to look at well-regarded native apps and ask ourselves where we currently fall short, if these apps cannot be fully expressed using Calcapp. We will need to add new user interface constructs to the toolbox available to our users and we will need to investigate whether we need to offer fully native apps, for iOS and Android, in order for apps built with Calcapp to be fully competitive. We also need to determine if we should offer support for app stores.

We think that the market for no-code app builders is large today and will become huge over the next couple of years. However, we recognize that Calcapp’s position in this market is fairly niche at present. The reason is that while Calcapp is great at calculations, it falls short in an area of great importance to business apps: data.

Many apps are completely centered around data. They may allow field crews to report irregularities they encounter directly from their phones or realtors to browse listings and add new entries.

We have made some strides in this area. Integration work we have done with third-party services like Zapier allows apps built with Calcapp to add rows to spreadsheets and databases and our column converter app converts tables to Calcapp formulas, one column at a time, making apps data-savvy.

However, while those features have value and enable apps that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible to build with Calcapp, we fully recognize that they are stop-gap measures in many respects. In particular, there is no way to make our apps update data and read it back later.

We’d like to add first-class support for data, enabling the realtor app mentioned above to be built with Calcapp. Imagine being able to link a data source — a spreadsheet stored in the cloud or a traditional relational database — to an app. A list panel would allow a user to navigate table rows, visualized by calculations panels whose fields would be bound to individual table columns. All changes would be automatically synchronized with the data source in the background.

Ultimately, though, our future plans depend on our most valuable source of inspiration: the feedback we get from you. Please keep it coming — this is just the beginning.

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