Power Automate, Microsoft’s Power Platform rebrand of Flow with newly added UI Flow for RPA, is now in general availability (GA). In the interim between Satya Nadella’s announcements at Microsoft Ignite 2019 and the April 2020 product launch, HFS’s initial reaction to the proposed plans for Power Automate predicted an automation software showdown between enterprise software vendors embedding RPA in platform and RPA vendors. We see value in Power Automate and other Power Platform components all connecting to Microsoft products and many other widely used enterprise software products. Microsoft’s Power Platform traverses the breadth of HFS’s Triple-A Trifecta: automation, AI, and analytics.
Microsoft’s proposals for Power Automate included attended automation, but unattended automation was not visible yet. We caught up with Microsoft before the launch to get the latest on unattended automation and pricing.
Power Automate has unattended automation, but Microsoft is not pushing “digital workforces”
Power Automate is shipping with unattended automation capability as an add-on (Exhibit 1); in Power Automate’s unattended mode, it will log into a virtual machine. Any connected system can initiate event triggers (through connectors), including a new email in an inbox, a new row added to a database, and a text message in Twilio. These triggers can call an automated flow into action, or flows can be triggered manually.
When Microsoft talks about unattended automation, the user is presumed to be a person, and the system can complete task in unattended mode on a virtual machine rather than on the user’s desktop. Using a virtual machine tackles a known drawback of attended automation head-on by preventing automated flows from monopolizing the desktop and rendering it unusable as they play out. This user-centric approach deviates from unattended automation, as HFS understands it from RPA vendors. For example, Blue Prism’s unattended bots are autonomous; they are users in their own right, operating behind the scenes, ideally with their own login credentials. They collectively form a “digital workforce.” Despite the different language around unattended automation, Microsoft confirms that Power Automate can log into both existing and dedicated machines with dedicated credentials. Who the user is and which machine to use are options that are specified during flow set up.
Buyers beware; figure out your process load before you go too far with your RPA tool, or pay the price
RPA pricing is convoluted, the unit of measurement of pricing differs wildly from vendor to vendor—there is a mix of consumption and license schemes in play. HFS investigated RPA pricing in 2018; a host of different approaches prevail.
Microsoft’s pricing is compelling, especially for steady usage volumes, and most especially the option to pay per cloud-based flow (at $500 per month for five flows) with unlimited use of that centralized flow by multiple users in an organization. Microsoft has updated its pricing, and the unattended option is an add-on to flow or user plans at $150/month per bot.
Exhibit 1: Unattended RPA is an optional add-on to Power Automate
Source: Microsoft, flow.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/#addons
Microsoft’s pricing scheme could prove expensive for short bursts of high-volume activity, which is a shame. Demand spikes is an area where RPA excels, rising to the challenge like a virtual workforce on tap. Nevertheless, it’s potentially worthwhile if, for example, a company might not otherwise be able to accept new orders or, in exceptionally fast-changing circumstances, they are causing processing spikes such as the ones the COVID-19 crisis presents.
In contrast, SAP is running with a consumption-based pricing model for IRPA (per block of bot runs, not per bot or seat). With this approach, you pay according to your usage, removing the risk of being locked into unutilized or underutilized licenses.
UiPath, a leading RPA vendor, is rolling out extensive pricing changes, packaging products per user persona and changing the terms of concurrent usage. UiPath customers and prospects who understand their consumption and usage patterns and both pricing schemes could benefit by moving quickly to secure prices on the new scheme or to sign or renew on the old scheme within the confines of the two pricing schemes’ overlap period.
The Bottom Line: Microsoft offers RPA as a side offering to its larger products in response to clear market demand. If pricing forms the basis of competition between RPA vendors and large enterprise platform vendors, the bigger kids can afford to be brutal.
Enterprise software vendors have the luxury of being able to price their RPA options very competitively because, in comparison to the main course, RPA sells for relatively small amounts. And RPA might even increase overall consumption. This pricing strategy was visible when Appian’s purchase of Jidoka was announced with RPA pricing that maxed out at $60,000 annually, with a dependency on purchasing more Appian licenses for any additional RPA users.
Like other enterprise software vendors such as SAP and Pega, Microsoft is approaching process automation from a technology perspective; RPA is almost the tool of last resort. Noting RPA’s inherent fragility, Microsoft discourages using RPA if there is another way to automate. APIs are Microsoft’s preferred route, and APIs underpin Power Platform’s connectivity. UI Flow caters to the long messy tail of processes with no accessible API option.
What RPA vendors have done extremely well, to their credit, is approach the challenge from a process perspective. RPA vendors appreciate the suffering of business users who must endure the pain that process debt presents. RPA vendors may merit criticism by promising their pills for every process ill because RPA is not necessarily the right answer to every process challenge. In HFS’s New RPA Manifesto, we previously highlighted the need for business users to have their voice heard at the table in IT prioritization and planning decisions and for IT to have guardrails around business users’ and citizen developers’ RPA plans. And we will say it again, both technology and process perspectives are necessary for success.