IBM has released a free web application development tool for non-technical small business users.

The software-as-a-service tool, available here, can be used to create online forms for tasks such as taking lunch orders from employees or keeping track of costs associated with a renovation project.

"We're offering a very visually enhanced tool that allows business users with no technical skills" to build web applications, said Cynthya Peranandam, an emerging technologies strategist for IBM's alphaWorks Services. Employees who want to build applications to support business activities often have to ask the IT department for help, and may end up waiting a long time because IT departments tend to have long backlogs, she said.

The IBM tool, called Development Engagement Service, is targeted at human resources, finance, sales and marketing departments.

It's mainly for simple applications, such as an invitation system, but can also handle tasks that are more complicated, Peranandam said. One potential application would allow an on-site operations manager to keep track of renovation costs.

"If the user wants to collect price quotes from various contractors, she would normally update a spreadsheet every time new information is gathered," said IBM. "Putting this information on the web with IBM Development Engagement Service allows anyone to access the file and update it, collect price quotes, analyse the information or collect references."

Development Engagement Service is an Asynchronous JavaScript + XML (AJAX)-based application with a drag-and-drop interface, allowing users to easily place the components they want into the forms they are building, Peranandam said. For example, if a user is building an invitation system for a company party, he can build the form employees would fill out by dragging and dropping fields for names, numbers, addresses and times people are available.

Currently, the tool can build only single-form applications, but IBM plans to expand it so users can build programs requiring multiple forms, she says. Once users finish building an application, they click a button to send the request to a Java-based back-end that generates the application and returns a URL where it can be accessed. The applications users build are hosted by IBM.

IBM is not the first company to release a free tool for building web applications. Oracle in March released a new version of its free development tool, which builds applications that generate reports based on data hosted by Oracle databases.

The IBM development service was created at the company's Haifa Research Laboratory in Israel, and is part of an IBM program to gain feedback from users about emerging technologies.

"The goal of putting these technologies out there is to collect feedback from the audience on what they think is the value of this tool and whether they're interested in using a tool like this," Peranandam said.

If successful, the tool could be expanded upon and turned into a fee-based service, she said.