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What Happened at the Global RFID China Forum

This guest article from Mike Guillory is about the state of China's role in RFID based on his observations from the recent Global RFID China Forum in Beijing.
Tags: Standards
Jan 03, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

January 3, 2006—Last month I attended an event in Beijing, China, that some might view as "just another conference" in the long string of such events related to RFID. In fact there seems to be so many conferences in the industry that it is difficult to find time and resources to attend them all and still have time for a real job. But given the activity and energy I had seen at the RFID/USN Korea 2005 Conference the month prior (see my wrap-up article), I felt the event in China was going to be worth the effort. I was not disappointed.

The 3rd Global RFID China Forum took place on November 4th and 5th in Beijing. Given that it was almost two months ago, you might wonder why I have taken so long in expressing my observations. Well, initially I wanted to reflect on the event to compare and contrast what I saw in Korea in October. As I was preparing to summarize my impressions, I became aware of other "related" matters through my participation in global standardization efforts (e.g. ISO). These matters took some time to understand, appreciate, and put into perspective.

High Government Involvement

China, like Korea, is clearly very interested in RFID. The event was held at the Kerry Centre Hotel in the center of the international business district of Beijing. I estimate that the attendance was somewhere between 350 and 500 and reflected a large number of companies and interested parties both domestically and globally. The agenda covered a wide range of topics and issues related to RFID technology and its applications. In fact, the number of topics and participants was so great that the allocated time for speakers (with questions from the audience) was usually insufficient, causing presentations to run over. Personally, I would have preferred the event to last two and a half or even three days to allow for a more complete discussion of many of the topics.

There was an air of excitement and energy throughout the event. Many of the side discussions centered on how the Chinese government would move forward with its support and promotion of RFID technology. Despite the events and activities in Korea, it seemed certain that China will not sit back and let this emerging technology be led by any other nation in the Asia-Pacific region. As was heard often throughout the conference, "As the source for much of the world's manufactured goods, China represents an end-point of the global supply chain."

The event included direct participation by the Chinese government, particularly the Ministry of Information Industry (MII). Edward Zeng, founder & CEO of SparkiceLab (the conference organizer), was selected as the Secretary General of the RFID China Alliance at the 1st joint RFID China Alliance & Ministry of Information (MII) conference that concluded on the second day of the Forum. The RFID China Alliance is now officially endorsed and supported by the (1) National Development & Reform Commission of the State Council, (2) State-owned Assets Supervision & Administration Commission of the State Council, (3) Ministry of Information Industry (MII), and (4) China Information Industry Trade Associations (CIITA).

Simmering Standards

Madam Zhang Qi, State Council Golden Card National Leader, Chairperson of the Chamber of China Information Industry & Secretary General of the Department of Information Product, Ministry of Information Industry(MII), commented, "China should be big enough to develop and deploy its own standards. This Forum is a very important milestone on that RFID roadmap for China." As standards are a critical element in the promotion of RFID technology, this comment was very interesting. Does this mean that China will pursue a different path in standardization from that of the rest of the world?

This question was amplified by some of the participants and presentations made during the course of the event. Of particular note was the participation of a small South African company called iPico. This company was at the conference in force. They made a presentation that was not supportive of global standards, particularly regarding ISO. They actually said that their technology should be used in lieu of ISO technology because theirs "works" and has been offered to the Chinese government for use as royalty free in China. They did not say what licensing terms were to be offered to the rest of the world, but I suspect they will not be royalty free.

Consequently, it was not a surprise to see (as part of the conference) an announcement of a joint venture between iPico and Sparkice to develop and implement RFID hardware solutions for China, with potential for global market development. As noted in the press release for this JV:

"SparkiceLab will serve as total RFID solutions provider for RFID deployment programs while iPico will be primarily responsible for providing RFID hardware (tags, readers) and integrated middleware (DIMI platform) products for the RFID projects undertaken and led by SparkiceLab. iPico has developed their own proprietary, patented RFID air-interface protocol, iP-X, which is fast emerging as a major contender for the air-interface standard for all RFID frequencies."

Intellectual Property

This statement points to the issue that drew my attention this last month as I reflected on the outcome of this conference: intellectual property. While I personally feel that China will not promote a purely proprietary RFID technology in competition to that represented in global standards (i.e. ISO/IEC 18000), I do feel that the activities represented by the iPico/Sparkice JV will likely show up on the global standardization stage. My guess is that China will ultimately join with other global trade participants and use RFID technology that is represented in ISO. (Recall that China fought long and hard to become a member of the WTO, and WTO obligations regarding the removal of global trade barriers require the use of global standards.) Thus, what is likely to happen is that proprietary technologies such as that being promoted by the iPico/Sparkice JV will be brought to ISO for standardization. It will be at that point that the issue of IP will (once again) be at the industry's center stage.

Conclusion

The 3rd Global RFID China Forum Conference held in Beijing in November emphasized the dynamic nature of the market and those participating. China will be an active participant (and likely leader) in the application of RFID technology in the supply chain. Standardization will be critical to effective use of the technology, and IP will be a fundamental issue needing to be properly addressed.

As the conference came to a close there was a high level of energy among the participants, as there had been in Korea the month prior. The organizers were very pleased with the response, and all indications are that this event will happen again next spring. Though China is lagging others (such as Korea) in having an integrated plan to promote the development and use of RFID technology, there is little doubt that they will become a driving force in the use of this technology in the supply chain.
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