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The Manhattan Project

Excessive secrecy could be the Auto-ID Center's Achilles heel.
Tags: Standards
Jul 22, 2002July 22, 2002 - During my interview with Alan Haberman, who was closely involved in the development of the bar code 25 years ago, for this week's feature, he mentioned something interesting. All of the meetings that the committees and subcommittees involved in the effort were open to not just people in the industry, but also to the press and public. Haberman said the minutes from the meeting were written up and distributed. And when the bar code and Universal Product Code were finally presented to the industry, there were companies ready to implement it immediately.

This struck me because it contrasts so sharply with the Auto-ID Center's current posture. The center is highly secretive. So secretive, in fact, that I've begun to think of it as the Manhattan Project. The difference in attitude towards releasing information is related to the difference in the effort to create the UPC and the effort to create the Electronic Product Code that is designed to succeed it.

The creation of the UPC was an industry led effort. Many of those who worked on the subcommittees were CEOs of large grocery manufacturing companies or from the supermarket chains. But they were working as representatives of industry bodies, and the industry funded the research.

By contrast, the Auto-ID Center is not an industry-backed effort. It is being funded by individual companies, including Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Gillette, and so on. End-user sponsors – that is, those that will use EPC technology – contribute $300,000 to become a sponsor of the Auto-ID Center. If you want to participate in the field test, you have to put up another $80,000 or so. What do the sponsors get for their money? Primarily access to information.

If the Auto-ID Center gave away all the information to the press, there would be no incentive for companies to make donations. So to continue the research, MIT needs to get funding and to get funding it needs to limit the information distributed to the public. But MIT's interests are different from Wal-Mart's interests. And Wal-Mart's interests are different than the retail industry's interests.

There are several potential pitfalls with the Auto-ID Center setup. First, as Haberman said, there is a lot of misinformation about RFID. Articles about the Auto-ID Center tend to talk about pie-in-the-sky applications of the technology because the sponsors don't want the journalists (and thus their competitors) to see the real applications today. Misinformation could lead to disappointment and even rejection when the system is finally ready to be adopted.

Another problem I see is that the vast majority of companies that are not sponsors may not want to adopt a system that gives their competitors a two-year head start. In a sense, they may say: "We don't want to accept the new rules of the game because the field is tilted in your favor."

And the third problem is a practical one. Wal-Mart may get some internal benefits from using RFID, but the real benefits come when suppliers are tagging products. But what happens when the system is ready and Wal-Mart announces, "Okay, starting June 1, you have to tag everything you send us." How are those suppliers going to do that? They are going to scramble to meet those requirements. They are going to make hasty investments in equipment and they are not going to share the benefits.

It's possible that the Auto-ID Center has a worked out a sophisticated plan for educating the world about this global system. In my view, the education process needs to start now. And the center and its sponsors need to think about balancing their own interests with the broader interests of industry at large. Otherwise this issue could become the effort's Achilles heel.

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article or submit your own, send e-mail to mroberti@rfidjournal.com.
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