Microsoft officially entered the robotic process automation (RPA) marketplace this week with some major changes to its Power Platform. It’s not the first incumbent enterprise software vendors to feel the need to have a product in this category (SAP purchased French RPA vendor Contextor late last year), and it won’t be the last. We should expect to see a steady increase in RPA investment in from big enterprise vendors, with a mix of internally developed and acquired technologies. Watch this space for announcements over the next year from Salesforce, ServiceNow, and even perhaps Oracle, IBM, and others.

The fundamental challenge driving these investments is that RPA is the first step in a journey to reinvent how companies build the software they use to run their businesses (see my recent article on how UIPath is reinventing the RPA category). RPA lets companies record a series of computer-based processes done by a human so that the series can then be repeated automatically without human involvement. When companies change the way they use technology, incumbent enterprise software providers are often threatened. We’ve seen multiple waves of platform change over the past 25 years — web browsers, cloud computing, mobile. But this RPA wave may be even bigger than prior ones in that it changes the way we organize and manage work itself — introducing a hybrid workforce of people, rules-based automations, and increasingly smart algorithms (AI/machine learning).

Not yet fully baked

The old adage about Microsoft is that it always takes them until version three of a product to deliver something usable. It took Microsoft three tries to make Windows successful. And when the first real challenge to Windows appeared in the form of web browsers as a new model for application development, it again took Microsoft three tries to get Internet Explorer to a place where it really added value to the still emerging “dot com” market. Before that, Microsoft offered a rehash of technology licensed from Spyglass (remember Mosaic?).

The company’s announcement this week of Power Automate seems to come out of the same playbook — an early partial attempt to address a new market that will take time and investment to mature into a useful technology that really contributes something to the RPA category. Microsoft has taken its existing Flow product (similar to the popular and free web based service IFTTT) and added the open source tool Selenium (originally developed for automating web application testing) and a desktop macro recorder — and called the bundle RPA. As with early versions of Internet Explorer it can do some of what more mature products can do, but it lacks enterprise management and security features that have now become standard in products provided by UIPath, Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and others.

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