As published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of PassAGEnow:
When predicting technology trends, Bill Buxton, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and author of Sketching User Experiences may have said it best:
“If history is any indication, we should assume that any technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next 10 years is already 10 years old!”
This theory holds true for several technologies. For example, the first mobile telephone call was made in 1946, many years before the first commercial cellular network was launched in 1979. GPS was in use for nearly 30 years in government and military programs before it became a must have for personal vehicle navigation. And, the formation of the Internet as we know it began in the 1980s, but wasn’t truly incorporated into virtually every aspect of modern human life until a decade later.
Applying this premise to radio frequency identification (RFID) seems to hold true as well. The technology itself was well over 10 years old in 2004 when retail giants began pushing it as a means of driving efficiencies into their supply chains. While these initial retail programs didn’t succeed according to plan, and mass adoption didn’t happen the way many analysts predicted, these initiatives did kick off a high level of interest from retailers, product manufacturers and many other industries and markets focused on improving their business and service processes. Between 2004 and now, something else happened that makes one ask if RFID is ready to have that significant impact Buxton mentions.
During this span, RFID hardware and software providers have continued to innovate and collaborate at a notable clip. RFID readers have evolved to include a wide variety of purpose-built and multi-use form factors. Smaller, more powerful embedded RFID modules are being used to enable many stationary and mobile devices with the auto-identification technology. These advancements, coupled with continued innovation in the RFID tag and software markets, have resulted in RFID system performance improving exponentially. While these advances are significant, I’m not suggesting that that there will be an ‘ah-ha’ moment when businesses and consumers realize that RFID is a technology they can’t live without. To the contrary, RFID adoption will likely be steady; finding its way into a greater number of solutions and replacing less effective legacy technologies as time goes on. A key point in all of this however, is that the technology itself has matured to a point where it is no longer a barrier to entry.
‘Climbing the Slope’
So where are we now, more than 40 years after the first passive radio transponder with memory was patented in 1970, and nearly eight years since the retail industry brought attention to RFID at a global scale? Confirming the market’s progress is evidence that RFID technology has passed several critical milestones of Gartner Research’s well known Hype Cycle, including first and second generation products, media hype, negative press, supplier consolidation and failures, and emerging methodologies and best practices. Taken at face value, this would put the market in the Hype Cycle’s Slope of Enlightenment stage and moving toward the emergence of third generation products, out-of-the box usability, and high growth adoption.
What’s more, businesses across all industries have a great number of well documented end user case studies and best practices to help them with their ROI analysis. Many pre-configured and kitted solutions are emerging, and ease-of-use features are starting to find their way into once highly-technical, hard to use products. Maybe most importantly, vendor promises and user expectations about performance have found solid common ground. Error rates have dropped significantly and there are many applications where 100 percent read rates are achieved. That said, users accept that there can be momentary losses of visibility of RFID tags owing to environmental factors and that software error correction, along with well-designed installations, should be a principal consideration in implementing successful solutions.
So now what?
It’s Time to Reshape the Way We Think About RFID
With the reliability of today’s RFID systems and the apparent progression through traditional stages of technology advancement, it’s time to reshape the way we think about RFID. RFID vendors and solution providers have survived the technology maturation process. End customer organizations of all sizes have learned where and when it makes the most sense to apply RFID to their business processes. Now it’s time to think beyond RIFD of the past 10 years and toward the next wave of innovation.
We should think beyond the underlying technology – and toward the value of the data, emerging methods of data access, and about the many innovative enterprise and consumer applications that can be enabled with RFID data.
We should think beyond one-size-fits-all readers – and toward the wide variety of fixed-position and embedded RFID reader form factors that can support a great number of unbelievably diverse applications.
We should think beyond siloed deployments of RFID – and toward the hardware, software and data becoming an integrated element of the enterprise.
We should think beyond the singular technology of RFID – and toward the combination of RFID and other technologies like GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
As an industry, we are beginning to see glimpses of this forward thinking. Technology vendors are more willing to collaborate. True solutions are starting to emerge. We are experiencing a realization, albeit a slow one, that no single technology is suitable for identifying and tracking things because different assets hold different values and each technology has its strengths and weaknesses relative to a given application.
As we’ve experienced with many other data-driven solutions, I expect this progression may eventually lead to RFID as a platform – with RFID modules and extensible software interfaces allowing for the integration of RIFD with other technologies. Purpose-built systems will incorporate passive sensors and computational systems will emerge. In certain applications, it is easy to imagine everyday physical objects with built-in RFID. If we’ve learned anything from the mobile device revolution it is that there is great promise when devices are able to connect with objects around us. Even more compelling is when these devices will be able to learn about our environment, provide contextual adaptation if necessary, and, connect those objects to the broader Internet and business systems.
There is no doubt that over the next decade, RFID systems will become an integral part of the consumer and business experience. The convergence of wireless technologies will be augmented by RFID systems. The development of passive RFID as part of this platform will be driven by the potential to measure, report and monetize a growing number of transactions in the physical world.
Similar to the mobile phone, the widespread integration of GPS into today’s commercial and consumer positioning solutions, and the adoption of this thing called the Internet, RFID is ready to transform markets. Only time will tell the scale and impact RFID will have, but I for one, bet it will be a big one.