Retool expands its low-code platform for building internal apps to support external apps as well

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Since launching in 2017, Retool has made its mark as one of the leading low-code tools for building browser-based internal line-of-business applications. The well-funded startup’s service is now used at thousands of companies, including Amazon, OpenAI, Pinterest, Plaid, Snowflake, Taco Bell, and Volvo. Now, it’s expanding its focus from internal apps to include external apps as well. Aptly named “Retool for External Apps,” the new service is now generally available and aims to make it easier for any business to quickly and efficiently build secure and performant apps for a much broader audience than ever before.

As Retool CEO and co-founder David Hsu told me, a lot of companies have started using External during its preview phase. Some of these are large companies, such as Orangetheory, which has made the Retool app available to its 1,600+ studio managers, as well as some startups that are using the service to build MVPs while trying to find product/market fit.

For the most part, we’re not talking about consumer apps. While it’s possible to build them – and some people are doing it – Retool’s focus is on business apps, not the next social network.

“The core idea behind ReTool is basically that all internal tools have the same building blocks. They’re all made up of buttons, forms, tables — things like that. Basically, the really cool thing we learned about applying ReTool to external business software is that actually, external business software is also remarkably similar, especially the more operational external software,” Hsu said.

Most software written for business users today, whether internal or external, are basic CRUD apps that read and write to a database. They may differ in the way they present the data, but the overall functionality does not vary much between apps. However, most developers in the world work on building exactly similar apps from the same building blocks.

“What’s really remarkable is that, just like with internal tools, the way people build CRUD apps nowadays is very primitive,” Hsu said. “You basically use React and build it from scratch. It’s shocking that people are doing this day in and day out. … We’ve realized that a lot of the learnings we have for internal software apply to external software as well.”

However, building for an external audience is a little different, as things like branding, performance, and overall look and feel matter a lot. But, even there, users of internal apps now expect those apps to work just like consumer apps, even if there’s still a bit more leeway to prioritize function over form.

One thing you can’t ignore when building an external app is security. To that end, Retool added the necessary building blocks to provide authentication and authorization features. Hsu also noted that for external apps, most developers use more APIs than databases, probably because it gives them more control over how to access data.

It is worth noting that Retool is enabling businesses to embed new Retool apps into existing apps using its existing React and newly launched JavaScript SDKs. Retool has also added features to enable invitation and onboarding flows, including the ability to send custom emails from the user’s email provider of choice.

“Shipping good software to external users means builders have to think about user-facing features that are often not mission-critical when the tool is only used internally. This includes customizing how users are onboarded and navigate through the application. Security considerations become paramount with logins, password reset flows, and detailed permissions,” said Antony Bello, a senior product manager at Retool. “Retool’s design for external apps puts flexibility and customization at the forefront so customers can easily build white-labeled apps for external users without sacrificing security or user experience.”

In its early days, Retool’s mission was to “change the way software is built.” As Hsu explained, this made people wonder: “So what? Is it for the better? Is it for the worse?” Earlier this year, the company changed its mission to focus on bringing “good software to everyone.” Along with this, it also published a definition of good software (performant, reliable, secure, etc.) and in fact, Hsu says that Retool wants its framework to be more performant than React. He believes this is quite possible because Retool can focus on a smaller set of use cases.

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