• Patrick Perlmutter

Microsoft just won the enterprise automation market

With its recent updates to Power Automate, Microsoft just set itself up to dominate the business process and enterprise automation market

In the 1980s, for the first time, enterprise automation began to be a real possibility. Driven by the adoption of mainframes and personal computers, businesses began to realize that technologies could be interconnected to improve process efficiency.

An entirely new domain called business process management came into being and with it academic programs, software and even the beginnings of what we call machine learning today. The late 80s and early 90s saw the advent of Robotic Process Automation.

In the late 90s and 2000s, in-house teams and consultants began stringing together systems resulting in the software legacy companies depend on today.

Application design, processes and automation: a perpetual loop

During the 2000s, the paradigm began to shift. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) started consolidating business processes and process automation in neatly packaged digital products; licensing evolved into subscription models; and in the blink of an eye, technology was decoupled from the long-term financial investments that drove legacy systems just a decade or two earlier.

The consolidation of business processes in SaaS made it easier for providers of these tools to improve the user experience around a process and in many cases, entire business functions.

Tools that previously required setup and updates and relied heavily on developers and consultants became accessible to non-technical users. SaaS drove an era of employee autonomy.

Not only did employers demand proficiency in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. They began asking for a mastery of function-specific tools like CRM, accounting software or logistics applications.

Before long, new user needs emerged. After all, business processes don’t operate in isolation, and neither does the data they drive them.

SaaS companies began opening their tools with APIs. Once again, the skills of developers and consultants were required to build a new interlaced, albeit more future-proof web of interconnectivity between systems.

Until just recently, this was the status quo. Several attempts to build the so-called “API of APIs” in the form of IFTTT and Zapier, most notably, come to mind.

Yes, these apps have without a doubt seen success, but the magnitude of their impact on multi-person function-agnostic business processes at scale, is undoubtedly limited. Few people in companies over 1000 people have even heard of them.

Microsoft Office 365 Online: Apps, Data and APIs

Since 2011, Microsoft has been engaged in its own renovation. Microsoft missed the earl cloud computing wave that was dominated by Amazon Web Services AWS. And even just 4 or 5 years ago, it was difficult to imagine how any company could compete with Google’s powerful and collaborative ecosystem of tools in GSuite.

Nevertheless, the company’s dominance remained largely intact.. While SMBs and some large transformative organizations began seriously considering, and in some cases transitioning to Google’s modern ecosystem of tools, large, often more conservative enterprises remained on Windows 7 or Windows 10 and Office 2007 or Office 2010.

As Microsoft watched these competitive threats develop, it found new leadership in Satya Nadella. It was he who began rethinking Microsoft’s place and building a vision for Microsoft’s future.

The introduction of Office 365 online that mimicked GSuite’s powerful collaboration tools, the introduction of Power BI, the general movement of entire app ecosystems into the cloud and the resulting exposure of their APIs created a product ecosystem that was perfectly fit for Microsoft’s expansive existing enterprise presence and sales network.

On September 21, 2018, more than 6 years after Zapier came to market, Microsoft released Flow, the glue that promises to bring its entire application ecosystem together.

API-driven business processes automation

Microsoft Flow started out as a basic application similar to its counterparts IFTTT and Zapier. It proposed some of the most common connections between applications.

For example it could save an attachment to OneDrive when a new email was received. It could add a line to an Excel spreadsheet, when a new document was added to SharePoint.

Its meager beginnings of basic task automation have blossomed into a robust, nearly unlimited number of task and process automations. The entire Microsoft app ecosystem - every single API, database, cloud - is now accessible and connectable thanks to this tool.

There are literally no more limits to orchestrating data and tasks across Microsoft apps. What’s more is that support for third-party apps is also growing speedily.

But more importantly, Power Automate requires absolutely 0 technical skills. All of the SaaS that have evolved into orchestratable services thanks to the exposure of their APIs are now becoming software nodes in a web of perennial, future-proof automations that allow users to centralize data, execute tasks, integrate machine learning, and query legacy databases without writing a single line of code!

In an ode to its powerful feature set, Microsoft rebranded Flow to Power Automate in late 2019.

Robotic process automation (RPA) and legacy

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. Since the 1990s, companies have been designing software that mimics human interaction on visual software.

Legacy systems often made it impossible to retrace backend architectures to the point where many companies became so hesitant to modify them, that they favored user interface-centric automation, today known as Robotic Process Automation, RPA.

RPA takes the form of bots that act like humans. Just like humans, they're able to click on screens or enter data to move a process forward. They get their instructions by "watching" human interactions and learning to replicate them.

The main competitors in this space include Blue Prism, Automation Anywhere, UIPath and SAP. All of these companies have been growing like crazy over the past few years in large part because these technologies have become far more accessible for end users.

Nevertheless, despite significant advances, they’ve been mired in their own legacies. The user interfaces of these systems remain fairly complex and unintuitive. As a result, they've still not seen mass adoption by non-technical, operational end users.

It is here where Power Automate was able to find an opening.

On April 1, Power Automate was christened with an RPA integration. With this feature, Microsoft has mounted an insurmountable barrier in automation. Its integration into Power Automate's easily accessible interface and simplicity of recording interactions on a screen far surpasses the capabilities of the other major RPA solutions.

UIPath, Blue Prism and company were focused purely on RPA bots, while automation companies like Zapier and IFTTT were completely absorbed by the notion of becoming the API of APIs.

Meanwhile, within 2 years Microsoft leverage its customers, sales network, app ecosystem and resources to accomplish both, and with a superior user experience in both areas to boot.

Democratization of automation

The future of automation lies in the ability to accomplish 4 main objectives:

  1. Centralize data in a data warehouse or data lake for business intelligence;

  2. Orchestrate data flows between applications and a centralized data lake or data warehouse;

  3. Integrate legacy databases and infrastructure with a modern infrastructure using traditional query languages;

  4. Replace low-value, repetitive human tasks and workflows with bot-driven automation.

Microsoft is the first and only company to propose an app and app ecosystem that fills this promise. It is in the process of building an open ecosystem that allows for third-party integrations. It has done all of this without requiring users to have any technical skills at all.

Microsoft will dominate the next decade of enterprise automation. I'd go even so far as to suggest that SMBs and even startups may begin adopting Microsoft Office 365 Online over Google GSuite in the years to come.