Power Automate: A new tool in the RPA landscape
The RPA tool market is the fastest growing and most competitive market in enterprise software. Microsoft has recently proved this by updating and rebranding its Flow package at their Ignite 2019 event. Flow is now called Power Automate, as it has finally added true RPA features. That's why I took my time to download and test this new version.
Power Automate is an attempt by Microsoft to automate data collection, notification and communication through simple workflows and connectors. One could think of Microsoft Flow as a popular mobile/web app IFTTT (IF This Then That) for the (Microsoft) business user. The tool has a huge amount of very practical and simple connectors for everything from Microsoft apps to Twitter, Salesforce, JIRA and MailChimp. These connectors are also available in frequently used templates accompanied with an AI builder. For example, the tool can be activated by a new file, manipulate files from a SharePoint location, use some business logic (using functions such as 'Apply to each', 'Do until', 'if' and 'Switch') to classify them and send specific emails. This was an excellent way to automate processes that do not require UI automation. However, in reality, many flows have to be automated through the application's user interface.
The current version of Power Automate has now added a 'UI flows' preview to its online designer app resulting in an RPA tool. After a few fairly quick installs (two Chrome extensions and one background desktop app), I was able to start my first automation in the renewed tool.
My first Power Automate automations
The designer studio works in the browser, there is no desktop app. You have to choose between web automation (latest Chrome or Edge needed) or desktop automation where Windows 10 is required.
To my surprise, the web automation component launches Selenium IDE (an open-source tool that is mainly used as web application test automation software). The tool allows you to create a workflow through a recording function (similar to the UiPath recorder function) with the ability to modify the selectors (unique identifiers) of the UI elements you are communicating with, but the possibilities seem limited at first sight.
The screenshot below shows the Selenium IDE with a workflow that opens Chrome on Google; it types 'Power Automate' to the Google Search field and clicks the search button. My recording worked perfectly when it was tested, however, I was a bit disapointed in its flexibility. For example, I couldn't find any way to use variables, edit my selectors, change the order of my workflow or add activities to the recorded variables. When saving the Selenium flow, there are no further editing options in Power Automate.
The desktop part of Power Automate UI Flows certainly looks better than the web part (Selenium). Visually it has a better look than Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and in some ways UiPath. It uses Microsoft 'UI Fabric' standards in a more advanced way than other tools. This makes you feel comfortable designing your workflow.
The Desktop Automation component requires you to set up the input of your processes and then define your process steps.
For the example below, I opened my Outlook Inbox, performed some 'clicks' at random, landed in a New Mail Message window, wrote one of my inputs in the 'To' field and read the name in the footer of my mail.
After using the recorder, I could edit the activities (add comments, change name, …). However, it did not allow me to change the selector in a fast and user-friendly way. There was also the possibility to manually add activities, although the choices were limited.
I tried several applications but could only get real Microsoft applications to work. Other applications like Slack or Spotify did not respond to the recorder.
I think it's great that Microsoft is taking the right steps in the RPA landscape. Users of the Flow app will certainly benefit from the new name Power Automate. Power Automate is undoubtedly one of the best at creating workflows using connectors, but it would be quite a job to call it a true RPA competitor (UiPath, Blue Prism or Automation Anywhere). Some of the fundamental things I miss in the current version are:
· Making flows without the recorder
· Error and exception handling
· Ability to flexibly edit selectors
· Interaction with all kinds of desktop applications (not just Microsoft)
Readers should keep in mind that this is just a preview. I am excited to see what Microsoft will bring in the following months, but for now, it seems like a good solution for simple automation needs that transcend connectors with other apps.
What do you think about the introduction of Microsoft in the market? Do not hesitate to share your impression of the application and its possibilities. Reach out if you want to know more about intelligent automation tools, their (dis)advantages and their implementation at your company!