Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which involves automating repetitive and tedious processes within organizations, is dominated by three pure-play software vendors: UiPath, Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere. These companies are some of the fastest growing in the tech industry and have raised substantial amounts of venture capital.
But the mega software companies want to get a piece of the RPA opportunity. And the one that is perhaps best positioned is Microsoft.
This should be no surprise. The company has a massive roster of corporate customers, a strong global infrastructure and a vast ecosystem of partners and developers. It also helps that Microsoft has been aggressively bolstering its cloud business, which is now second only to Amazon.
The key to the strategy for RPA has been to leverage the Power Automate platform, which helps automate legacy systems. Just some of the features include: the understanding of structured and unstructured data (say for invoices) and the integrations with more than 300 modern apps and services. There are also numerous AI capabilities.
Ok then, so what about RPA? Well, it was added last year. It’s called UI Flows, which has both attended and unattended automation. The application also is fairly easy to use as it allows for the recording of workflows (keystrokes, mouse movements, data entry, etc) and provides for low-code and no-code approaches. For example, Schlumberger has used the technology to drive efficiency with 13,000 bots–and a majority of them were built outside of IT.
“Everybody can be a developer,” said Charles Lamanna, who is the CVP of the Citizen Developer Platform at Microsoft. “It takes less than 30 seconds to sign up. You can then create a bot in a few minutes.”
However, might the accessibility of this technology lead to security issues? For instance, could an employee do something like put payroll information in Dropbox storage?
Microsoft is certainly mindful of the risks and has created a system to enforce compliance. This is possible since the platform is cloud native. “You have complete visibility with every bot,” said Lamanna.
So how big is UI Flows in the RPA market? Well, it’s not clear. But in a blog post, Microsoft noted: “Power Automate already helps hundreds of thousands of organizations automate millions of processes every day.”
For example, Ingram Micro uses Power Automate across its organization to help with onboarding, account creation, management of credit lines, and other critical workflows. About 75% of the projects took less than 30 days to develop.
Yet I suspect we will see accelerated growth of UI Flows—and soon. A big part of this will certainly be the core technology. But I think the business model is also likely to be disruptive to the RPA industry.
Consider that its typical for a software vendor to charge on a per-bot basis, which could come to over $1,000 per month. This does not include the fees for orchestration and other modules.
But Microsoft is breaking this model, which involves two tiers. First, there is a $40-per-user monthly fee for running attended or unattended bots. Next, you can elect to pay $150-per-month for each unattended bot.
In other words, this low-cost strategy should greatly expand adoption. It will also likely have a major impact across the RPA landscape. Cost has certainly been a major point of concern for customers, especially those that are looking to scale the automation.
“There are three trends on the horizon for RPA,” said Lamanna. “First, cloud is inevitable and cloud hosting will be the only environment that matters end-to-end. Second, if RPA wants to become mainstream, it has to be democratized. The reality is Windows didn’t become a big deal until it was on everybody’s desk. For RPA to be transformative, it has to be on everybody’s desk. And the need for RPA is real. Over 60% of all positions for information workers spend over 30% of their time doing rote, automatable tasks. The economic benefit for companies, and even more importantly the fulfillment at work for employees, is very, very large. We just have to make it possible and affordable. And third, automation is going to stretch beyond UI automation. True automation has elements like chatbots and forms that collect information and these will all start to mix together with digital process automation and robotic process automation. Customers want to solve an automation problem with one integrated solution.”
Tom (@ttaulli) is the author of the book, Artificial Intelligence Basics: A Non-Technical Introduction, as well as the upcoming book, The Robotic Process Automation Handbook: A Guide to Implementing RPA Systems.