Understanding the origins of automation (Part 1)

Automation used to exist only in manufacturing companies where packaging toothpaste, jars of sardines, and bottles of shampoo are applicable. Today, automation isn’t hard to get by, as it’s virtually everywhere.

At a time where technology is on a profitable roll, applications like Zapier, Integromat, and Slack are shared resources, especially for modern businesses.

But it wasn’t always like this. How exactly did we get here, and how has business process automation come to be?

Meeting the pioneers

Not too long ago, the sole method in automating workflows across a variety of apps was to write and integrate code manually, and this was only applicable for software with API. Despite that possibility, the options were disappointing and not worth the hassle. 

Still, many tech leaders found the idea promising as it’s now practically impossible to imagine enterprises operate without industrial automation; and for that, we have a handful of pioneers we can thank.

IBM, one of the first game changers

IBM was one of the first pioneers who believed in improving the idea. A powerhouse brand in the tech industry, they believed in automation’s potential so much that they launched the WebSphere Process Server in 2005.

The objective of WPS for businesses was simple—to visually represent workflows in the name of organizing and communicating specific processes much quicker. And while it never reached mainstream tech discussions, the software turned out to be identifiably automation-oriented.

In hindsight, experts say the software was too much like many of IBM’s products—technical and complicated. Still, it exhibited the possibility of digitized and automized business processes, which in itself, was a significant hypothesis leaders needed to validate.

Yahoo! Pipes and commercial success

Although it no longer enjoys the same level of success it used to, Yahoo! was an incredible go-to consumer software company people turned to for personal and business internet needs. That said, it wasn’t surprising how Yahoo! Pipes was launched in 2007.

Arguably the brand that started commercial visual programming, Pipes was a web app that utilized a drag-and-drop interface and the incorporation of APIs. The result was an online tool that gathered data from multiple sources that simplified setting up processes with acquired data. While it mostly centred only on manipulation and data aggregation, it served as an essential model for later automation services, adding the mainstream charm that wasn’t found with WebSphere Process.

The expanding automation market

It was roughly a decade ago when the demand for web app automation started to grow, even if not too many people realized it yet. Banking on what WPS and Pipes started was an entire industry that raced to be the next big name in automation. 

It wasn’t too long before SaaS apps took over.

Twilio, Stripe, AWS, and other similar services that comprised the SaaS giants of today were introduced to the market almost one after the other. Similar to how Google Sheets and Google Docs became commercial enough for Microsoft to take their Office applications to the cloud, nearly every new business app was SaaS with API capacities.

Everything just needed to be strung together.

Introducing If This, Then That

If This, Then That (IFTTT), was one of the biggest API-powered automation tools that hit commercial success. Launched in 2011, IFTTT accommodated more than a million automations only six months after being launched. The first service to optimize an automation plug-and-play approach, it connected apps that were entirely independent from each other, empowering people to build new automatons. What’s more, it was both free and easy to use—a powerful combination that works almost all the time.

IFTTT introduced the world to how if an application “does this,” then another application “does that.” Looking back, what made IFTTT such a mainstream joy was that it was notably user-friendly, a characteristic commercial programming tools didn’t posses back in the day.

Programming’s most straightforward explanation is this: if this thing does this, then that thing should do this.

Developers instruct computers what to do.

When you piece logic together, what you get is a piece of software in the form of an application. What IFTTT did differently was to make visual programming so accessible that people could see what goes where when working on software development.

Although IFTTT is still operational today, it’s clear that it no longer leads the commercial software development industry. Nonetheless, the no-code movement would have been nowhere close to actualizing were it not for what IFTTT was able to teach tech entrepreneurs and corporations— customers aren’t only willing to learn; they’re also fast learners who get the job done when handed the right tools.

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