My Airtable Journey: An Overview of the Low-code Platform

A current “buzz” word in business innovation is “low-code” and, in some circles, “no-code.” This trend is simply a desire to move the creative process of application development and problem-solving back to the business user, who, in most cases, will be the subject matter expert. I mention this now because it is key to explaining an ongoing tsunami in business technology and relates to my job as a consultant who provides clients with practical alternatives to solve business problems with minimal disruption to their operations.

Low-code is disruptive and is perfect for smaller organizations with small IT budgets. I have selected Airtable as a candidate platform to explore and discuss what it is like creating on this new platform.

Business owners and fast-moving IT departments are quickly adopting “low-code” collaboration platforms such as Airtable, Podio, Knack, and others. The most recognizable brand on this list is Airtable, so what does Airtable offer? Is it more accessible and productive than its predecessors like Google Sheets or Microsoft 365 – Excel? I decided to explore this idea by subscribing to Airtable’s Pro plan to learn a new way of creating a collaborative workspace and business application.

An Introduction to Airtable

Let’s start from the beginning. Airtable was officially released in early 2015 as a simple way to manage data using spreadsheets and views on a cloud-based platform. Airtable differentiates itself from a typical spreadsheet with database-like features such as linked tables and pre-defined data types for fields. Interfaces for form data entry were later added along with the ability to integrate with other external platforms, and as of November 2021, an interface designer was available. Its most promising feature is a public REST API that allows access to the underlying data stored in a ‘base.’ The Airtable toolset is evolving at a rapid pace.

Choosing the Right Airtable Subscription

After signing up, my first hurdle with Airtable was choosing the right subscription plan. This took some research because I was not accustomed to the concept of tiered pricing for common features. It seems that Airtable has a subscription model that “encourages” most users to choose the Pro plan to get the typical usability of a productivity application. The lower-cost plans are limited to what you can get for free with Google Sheets. I kept going back to my experiences with other platforms, such as FileMaker, and I was disappointed to find that the real power of Airtable is only available with higher-cost subscriptions. So Airtable’s low price as a competitive advantage seems great at the beginning, but that is not the case when you need more powerful scripting and automation.

Building on Airtable

Let the building begin. My baseline for business application building comes from decades in the FileMaker world, which made my transition into Airtable frustrating. First and most important is the limitations encountered. You can only have 50,000 rows of data per base. Bases are siloed from each other but can be linked using a single key field. Don’t mistake this for a fully relational database, though. It’s a linked list.

Airtable also has the concept of Interfaces, but they are not configurable beyond the small set of pre-defined elements. Scripting? Where is my script manager?

Oh, Extensions. This is where a developer’s skill with JavaScript can boost the power of an application with a limited number of extensions and /or automations.

Tables and fields are done. Easy, and not too much confusion. I was able to use functions right away, and there were several pre-defined data types. But again, there are limits to what a user can do. For example, I must expose the primary key on the screen, and it is always the leftmost column. It seems there is no workaround here. The underlying reason for this quirky choice is that this is the field used for referencing the table, and “under the hood,” the field has an ID; the user only sees the value.

Navigation in Airtable

On to Navigation. Getting around from base to base in a workspace is nothing more than clicking on the correct tab, aka “base.” When displayed, a base can have multiple views, allowing a developer to configure a custom view of the data in tabular format. For a more focused and workflow-driven experience, look for an Interface.

Interfaces Designer

Interfaces Designer? Did they mean layouts? This is the newest feature of Airtable and is one of the no-code features that business users are drawn to. Interfaces are bound to a specific data source, a base, that will allow users to connect to view or apply custom filtering and conditions. Pages can then be created to build a workflow that starts from the top-level interface.

My business application is done! I just need to load the data, which is a simple matter of importing CSV files and mapping the data to fields in their respective bases. Now is it more productive? Yes, it provides native collaboration features such as record-level commenting, assigning records to authenticated users, and integration with Slack. This is more than I get from Excel and Google Sheets when it comes to collaboration out-of-the-box.

Airtable as a Low-code Platform

My overall experience with Airtable was not horrible, but it was also not as fulfilling as building an application with FileMaker. Would I build in Airtable again? Yes, I don’t have a choice. Clients with small IT budgets are looking at Airtable for quick solutions and expecting lower development costs. Airtable is trying to be the affordable solution.

In my opinion, most businesses will be able to solve common problems using Airtable, but real customization that is built around a business domain will not be found in Airtable alone. It will be a portfolio of applications integrated to meet the specific needs of the business, using API technology as the glue that keeps it all together.

Choosing Your Low-code Platform

My team and I at Soliant Consulting often review platforms like Airtable for clients to see if it’s a good fit for their technology needs. If you’re interested in a new platform but need a technical review from consultants who can focus on your business needs and goals, we can help. Contact us to get started.

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