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Intelligent process automation and robotic process automation (RPA) — technologies that automate repetitive tasks — are big and growing businesses. In its recent Trends in Workflow Automation report, Salesforce found that 95% of IT leaders are prioritizing workflow automation, with 70% seeing the equivalent of more than four hours of savings per employee each week. Automation dovetails with low-code development tools, which enable users to automate processes without deep programming knowledge. Gartner predicts that 65% of all apps will be created using low-code platforms by 2024.
Against this backdrop, Microsoft today at Ignite 2021 announced updates throughout Power Platform, the company’s line of low-code app, intelligence, and app connectivity software. Power Platform now features deeper integration with Microsoft Teams and improved process mining, as well as a pay-as-you-go, per-licensing option via Azure. Alongside this, new Power Apps mobile apps for iOS and Android are making their debut, designed to help developers more easily distribute Power Platform apps.
“As the world continues to change, organizations are increasingly looking for ways to accelerate innovation so they can get ahead and stay ahead. This means demand for tech professionals has never been higher, and IT departments are backlogged,” Microsoft corporate VP of industry, apps, and data marketing Alysa Taylor said in a blog post. “Power Platform enables all types of problem solvers with the tools they need to build solutions, and at Ignite we’re excited to announce updates across the Power Platform portfolio.”
Power Automate, a component within Power Platform that creates automated service workflows, is gaining new integrations with existing Teams client apps. New Power Automate templates are available from the Teams app store, and Power Virtual Agents — a chatbot creation tool — will allow developers to share chatbots in Teams to users in appropriate security groups. In preview, Power Virtual Agents can proactively message Teams users. And soon, Power Virtual Agents developers will be able to directly add their chatbots to a team channel.
The Microsoft Power BI app in Teams is also now generally available, enabling users to create, discover, and share “rich” collaborative experiences. In preview, users can monitor project progress with new scorecard visuals by opting into Power BI Goals in Teams, a set of productivity-tracking features that launched in May.
Process miner, AI Builder, and Power Virtual Agents
Process mining, a part of Microsoft Power Automate and other workflow automation tools that applies data science to discover, validate, and improve workflows, is now available in preview. Process mining through Power Automate produces analytics and process maps to glean insights into ways to optimize business processes, showing which activities are the most time-consuming and identifying commonalities — and bottlenecks — in workflows using filtering from selected data attributes.
In related news, AI Builder — the low-code AI service that ships with Power Platform — now features the ability to bring tailor-made AI models to use with Power Platform. It also integrates with Lobe, a service that lets developers train custom machine learning models and ship them in their apps. (Microsoft acquired the startup behind the eponymous Lobe in 2018.)
Power Virtual Agents has been enhanced, in addition, with “fusion” bot development, always-on service, and more. Chatbot makers can share ideas, concerns, and questions by leaving comments related to specific topics (in preview), and chatbots can be connected to phone call interactions for Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Service, answering calls using speech recognition and text-to-speech (generally available). Beyond this, Power Virtual Agents chatbots can now be used as skills in Microsoft Bot Framework, Microsoft’s chatbot development kit, which includes software, tools, templates, and related AI services to power chatbots (generally available).
Among other updates on the Power Automate side of Microsoft’s Power Platform suite, the Azure Virtual Desktop starter kit has launched in preview. It integrates with existing Azure Virtual Desktop deployments and automatically turns on virtual machines to scale out RPA workloads faster, Microsoft says. (Azure Virtual Desktop, a tool for scaling Windows desktops on Azure with built-in security and compliance, became generally available in 2019 as Windows Virtual Desktop.)
Usability updates have been made with RPA in Power Automate for desktop, including a simplified recorder and a shortcut for desktop to Power Automate desktop in the Start menu in Windows 11. And there’s now support for governance over automation flows so that admins can define data loss prevention policies that warn makers when they’re creating flows that may violate company standards.
Microsoft rolled out Power Automate for desktop in March, following the company’s acquisition of RPA startup Softomotive. It provides an attended RPA solution to automate tasks in SharePoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, and third-party business apps, with web and desktop recorders that capture steps in an automation and a visual drag-and-drop designer that organizes flows.
Collaboration, Power Fx, and mobile apps
Beginning today in preview, Power App developers can now comment directly on apps, flows, and chatbots, adding notes and feedback with others — similar to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. For example, a user can add a comment on a screen in a Power Apps app asking for help with a formula.
Elsewhere, in preview, Power Fx has been extended to GitHub developer communities, allowing users to leverage and distribute code to the creators in their organization. Also in preview, developers can now connect a Microsoft Azure subscription to Power Apps and pay only for what they use. And apps for the aforementioned Power Apps are available for iOS and Android.
Lastly, Microsoft is releasing the latest update to its Power Apps-powered Return to the Workplace solution, version 1.6, now in preview. This update meets the upcoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration vaccination guidelines, Microsoft says, that require organizations of more than 100 employees to self-report and produce evidence of vaccinations and test results across employees.
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