With the robotic process automation market taking off, it wouldn't be like Microsoft to not grab a slice of the action

Redmond to take baby steps on desktop while established vendors turn gaze to enterprise deployments

Ignite Microsoft has been flexing its muscles in the robotic process automation (RPA) market during its current virtual shindig, promising a happy marriage between bot-building and its low-code development platform.

The software giant's Ignite 2020 conference introduced the public preview of Power Automate Desktop, which Microsoft said will allow people to automate tasks relying on desktop and on-premises systems including business processes and workflows.

Microsoft said it would pair Power Automate with WinAutomation, the RPA tool it acquired with the Softomotive buyout, which will allow users to automate manual business processes across both legacy and modern applications.

The move is expected to help Microsoft make significant inroads into low-end, desktop-based automation, while the established RPA vendors including UiPath, Blue Prism, and Automation Anywhere would start to focus on enterprise deployments and robot governance, according to analysts.

More automation to suddenly look like a jolly good idea as businesses struggle through coronavirus crisis, say analysts


Microsoft explained that Power Automate Desktop was built on technology from Softomotive WinAutomation. Users would be able to integrate WinAutomation with the Power Automate service where scripts and execution logs are available centrally and participate in the overall management, security, and governance model of Power Automate.

Microsoft would not be drawn on how long it would continue to support WinAutomation as a standalone product, but said: "Power Automate Desktop will allow existing WinAutomation customers to have a migration experience for their existing processes."

Global RPA software revenue is set to hit $1.89bn in 2021, up 20 per cent from 2020, according to the latest forecast from Gartner.

"The key driver for RPA projects is their ability to improve process quality, speed and productivity, each of which is increasingly important as organisations try to meet the demands of cost reduction during COVID-19," said Fabrizio Biscotti, research vice president at Gartner. "Businesses can quickly make headway on their digital optimisation initiatives by investing in RPA software, and the trend isn't going away anytime soon."

The impact of COVID-19 was likely increase interest in RPA, said Cathy Tornbohm, distinguished research vice president at Gartner. "The decreased dependency on a human workforce for routine, digital processes will be more attractive to end users, not only for cost reduction benefits, but also for insuring their business against future impacts like this pandemic."

Such is the scale of the growth in the RPA market, Microsoft's move to mix low-code and bot-building on the desktop was not likely to have a big impact on the well-established vendors, said Neil Ward-Dutton, IDC veep for AI and automation practices - referring to rivals such as UiPath, which counts Schneider Electric, the Royal Mail Group, and Direct Line among its customers.

However, the determination of the world's biggest software company to get a slice of the action would change the market dynamic, Ward-Dutton added.

"Microsoft has a mass footprint. It has tools and a track record in driving commodisation in markets, and generally it is good at building stuff that is easy to use. Core automation of desktop and Windows applications is likely be really important."

As such, Microsoft and possibly an open-source alternative would create systems that were low cost and easy to use.

But at the same time, RPA specialists would retain their strength in automating enterprise processes that run across systems from SAP and Oracle, for example. Meanwhile, they would continue to expand their offer to support governance and performance in RPA, helping to manage thousands of bots across the enterprise and the desktop, Ward-Dutton said. ®

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