The typewriter? Gone. The fax machine? Near extinction. Office automation? Maybe the writing’s on the wall there, too. After all, why bother with all those legacy business applications, when software as a service (SaaS) now covers so many of the needs of an enterprise. From sales and marketing, to accounting and supply chain management: it’s all available over the net. But haven’t we seen this somewhere before? The IT infrastructure may change, but the business processes remain the same. Outsourcing, offshoring, virtualization, and cloud computing may provide new, slicker links in the chain, that’s all. Will the new chain add more value than the old one, and if so, how?
SaaS-based office automation in the cloud with end-to-end process automation driven from Windows PC clients. Image source: upload.wikimedia.org
The Real Meaning of Office Automation?
Old-style office automation didn’t really offer end-to-end processes; it was more a bunch of islands of technology. When the fax first arrived, its content had to be entered into a computer system manually. Once vendors had figured out digital text to fax generation on one end, and OCR (optical character recognition) at the other end, some of the effort was reduced. However, processes remained largely manual. If enterprises needed to transfer information from one system to another, say from sales to accounting, it was often by exchanging floppy disks with spreadsheets to copy and paste data. In other words, office automation wasn’t very automated.
Window on the World
On the other hand, for entering, manipulating, and viewing the data that travel through office automation, offerings have evolved to bring users powerful, compact desktop computers with large, ergonomic flat screens. Despite the onslaught of mobile computing devices, like the smartphone and the tablet, the bigger screen, keyboard, and mouse remain a better solution for working with text, graphics, or data files in general. The predominant desktop operating system is Microsoft Windows, a situation that is likely to continue, at least in the near term.
Enterprises were already moving to browser-enabled interfaces for their in-house business applications before the cloud started up in earnest. Standardizing on HTML driven GUIs made a lot of sense. Even if several products (Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Netscape, among others) were available, testing efforts remained at acceptable levels; especially if developers kept within the core set of HTML functions supported by all browsers. When business systems moved out to the Web, many end-users simply used their browsers as they had done before.
Office Automation 2.0
Once, there was the Web. Now, there’s the Web 2.0. The same thing is happening to office automation. All enterprises need to do is to pick automation software that connects up the dots in the enterprise with the dots in the cloud, while still giving users a suitable window through which to look at and interact with different processes. Organizations can now pick a premier automation product that is still very affordable, runs on Windows computers, handles browser interfaces and web information efficiently, and connects up business applications with each other. The advantages are measured in the gains in time and competitiveness, and the reduction in effort and costs. So office automation is back again as part of the new era of software as a service – with the potential to be even better than before.
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