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Last week, I conducted a web demo with a prospect who has been evaluating our RatchetSoft RPA platform. During the session, he pulled up an old ZapThink article from 2003 that profiled our offering. ZapThink was a niche consultancy that provided advice, guidance, and education on service oriented architecture. Founded by Ron Schmelzer and Jason Bloomberg, ZapThink was acquired by Dovel Technologies in 2011. Ron and Jason are two smart guys and prolific writers who have great insights into their respective fields of interest. Check them out when you get a chance.

Apparently, my prospect was researching RatchetSoft on the web when came across the old ZapNote. Not quite understanding the history of RPA or our company’s journey within it, he asked, “Is this you guys?” To which I responded, “Yep, that’s us”. He then said: “So you guys were doing something totally different and then started doing RPA, right?” I then explained how that was not that case at all and that we HAVE BEEN DOING RPA ALL ALONG, but it was just called something else. And that’s the point of this article.

RPA maybe white hot, but it is far from new. While my prospect was confused because the ZapNote wasn’t peppered with the normal array of buzzwords he has grown accustomed to seeing in RPA articles, the goal of that 2003 start-up was clear. We were transforming an application’s user interface into an API so the app could be remote controlled and exchange data with the outside world. And when you pare back all the hype surrounding RPA (and there’s a lot if it), transforming an application’s user interface, which is the only interface an application is guaranteed to possess, into an interface that a robot can control, is the essence of RPA. AI, NL, machine and deep learning all have their place in the broader discipline that is intelligent automation, but RPA is the “runner”, the “hands at the helm”, that makes intelligent automation possible. And the technologies that underlie RPA: UI Automation, OCR, Windows API scraping, etc., have all been around for a long time.

Fueled by the euphoria surrounding SOA web services in the early aughts, we created Ratchet-X with the idea that most companies did not have the expertise or the stomach to break apart their existing cadre of applications and retrofit them with service interfaces. We believed if we could create a platform that allowed organizations to build passive adapters (i.e. no application changes or cooperation from the application vendor required), that could communicate with any Windows, browser or legacy application, we would have a winner on our hands. This platform would allow any existing application feature to be made available as a service via the SOA and callable from any other application. While we: no longer call it Service Oriented Mass Customization, have expanded the definition of the word “application” to include other interfaces, and now call these programs “bots”, the premise remains the same. The ability to remote control, extract data from, and paste data to existing applications without requiring: a traditional API, changes to the application, access to the database, cooperation from the vendor or even “permission” from IT, would change the world of systems integration. And it has.

However, what’s old is new again, and so the cycle continues. In the end, I believe the RPA hype will fade. Customer expectations will be seasoned with reality, RPA company valuations will return to some semblance of normalcy, and RPA, like the modular programming, ESB and SOA crazes that came before it, will mature as a discipline and become just another valuable way to integrate the unintegratable, speed up manual processes, and free up human resources to focus on more important tasks. And for me, that’s enough of a value proposition. Hype need not apply.       

BTW, if you founds that trip down memory lane interesting, check out this Ratchet-X profile by TechCrunch from 2007.