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Innovators Stuck With RFID

Renowned futurist Paul Saffo cautioned vendors not to abandon the technology just as it was taking off.
By Mark Roberti
May 19, 2013

For the past few days, I've been cleaning up old files and consolidating RFID Journal's photos and videos onto a single 4-terabyte external drive. While doing so, I came across a bit of video from Paul Saffo's keynote address at RFID Journal LIVE! 2005 (see Futurist Paul Saffo Discusses the Adoption of RFID Technology at RFID Journal LIVE! 2005). Saffo was then with the Institute for the Future, which conducts research about the impact of new technologies.

Saffo discussed the S-curve of technology adoption, which is similar to Gartner's better-known Hype Cycle. He said innovators who invest in developing new technologies, such as radio frequency identification, underestimate the near-term challenges involved in creating and selling products that companies will purchase and deploy. Even sophisticated people who understand the S-Curve, he said, tend to look and think "in a straight line."

The consequence of this, Saffo warned, is that "you get to be wrong not once, but twice." Essentially, he was saying that innovators often grossly overestimate the short-term impact of the technology, and then, "when cold reality fails to conform to the inflated expectations, we turn around and underestimate the long-term implications..." He added, "We have example after example of pioneers giving up just before the industry really takes off." His hope, in pointing this out, was that attendees would not make the same mistake.

This presentation was held just a few months after Walmart's suppliers had begun tagging pallets and cases (see Wal-Mart Details RFID Requirement and Wal-Mart Begins RFID Process Changes). Everyone thought the technology would take off at that point, but then "cold reality" set in, just as Saffo had predicted.

Thankfully, we have not seen a lot of companies exit the market or give up, though a few have exhausted their funding and gone under, while others have been acquired. Some of the large technology companies, such as Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, have not been active in the RFID market. But most entrepreneurs—or innovators, as Saffo calls them—have stuck it out. Alien Technology, ThingMagic and some other companies that exhibited at our first event, back in 2003, were at last month's LIVE! 2013 conference.

I think the reason most companies have stuck it out this long is that they, like me, never lost faith in RFID's ability to deliver huge benefits to businesses. The industry has grown slowly, but there have been enough projects for most vendors to survive, and enough successes to keep innovators innovating. The result is that there are now a wide variety of tags and readers for many different applications in myriad industries.

At LIVE! 2013, Airbus, Carrier and other manufacturers discussed how they are using RFID to improve operations. American Apparel and Bloomingdale's discussed the benefits of using RFID within their stores. BP explained how it is using RFID in the energy sector, and Vail Resorts outlined how it employs the technology at its ski resorts. There were speakers from government agencies, libraries, waste-management companies and many other industries at the event, discussing how RFID benefited their organization. These end users, with the help of solution providers, have cut a path that others will now follow. You can view a number of these presentations in our video library.

Nevertheless, I think many people still underestimate the long-term impact of RFID. Some end users still are not convinced that the technology can help them. And while venture capitalists are starting to come back into the market, interest is tepid, as far as I can see. There is a great deal of skepticism that RFID will ever be an important technology. But as Saffo said, everyone was starting to write off MP3 players just before Apple introduced the iPod.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.

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