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A Sad Comparison of RFID vs. DVD Adoption—and What to Do About It

Here is why passive UHF RFID adoption rates have been so disappointing, despite all the real benefits the technology has to offer.
By Jack Romaine
Sep 06, 2015

Adoption rates for passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID have been a disappointment to anyone with any knowledge of the industry. To understand why that is the case, let's take a look at one of the most rapid and successful product introductions of any consumer electronics technology in history—the video transition from VHS tapes for VCRs to DVD disks—and alter it to resemble the RFID buying experience.

First, let's examine some data:

Click on the above chart to view a larger version. (Source: Consumer Electronics Association eBrain Market Research statistics)
As with RFID, the consumable was more expensive than the current standard. Just as an RFID tag costs more than a bar code, the DVD was much more expensive than a VHS tape with the same content. The benefits of DVDs were very clear (better picture quality, no tracking problems, greater storage capacity and a longer life), and the industry educated consumers to the point at which the price premium was accepted. The RFID industry highlighted features (no line of sight requirement, rewriteability and durability), though it was not as clear about the benefits (a lower transaction cost to acquire data, data acquisition without human intervention, and the ability to be repeatedly reused, even in tough environments unsuitable for bar codes). But the real problem with RFID has been the system deployment.

As we all know, the migration from VCR to DVD went something like this:

You went to the electronics store, bought a DVD player costing $50 to $100, and brought it home. You hooked up a couple of cables that came with the player to your TV for video and sound, plugged it in with the supplied power cord, turned it on and hit "play." Once you had the disk and player, you could install the device and be watching movies in less than 15 minutes.

It was easy, and it was successful.

Now let's imagine the transition to DVD had been like the RFID industry. What would that look like?

You would go to the electronics store, pick out a DVD player costing $50 to $100 and put it in your cart. You would start to head for the register, and the clerk would say "But, wait! You need a new TV if you want that to work. Your old TV isn't compatible. And not just any TV. You need a model from this $2,000-plus family."

"Ok, I guess so," you would say, and you'd then add the TV to the cart with the DVD player.

"But, wait!", the clerk would say again. "You need a special computer to run the DVD player because it doesn't have any built-in intelligence. And not just any computer! It has to be this high-end, $2,000-plus type."

"Really?" you would say. "All this extra money to make a $50 player work?" But you really, really like movies, so you'd decide to go ahead and add the computer to your cart, and you'd start for the register once more.

"But, wait!" the clerk would again chime in.

"Really?" you would reply. "You've got to be kidding!" But unfortunately, he wouldn't be.

"You need software to run that computer and tie into the DVD player and the TV. We don't do that here, but I know a few guys you can call," he would explain. "A few more thousand dollars and a couple weeks to get the software done, and you'll be watching movies on that $50 DVD player! Of course, all of the devices need to be compatible, and you need to find the right software guy that works with those particular components."

Would you still want DVDs?

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