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Microsoft's RFID Offering a "Watershed Moment"

Microsoft's recently released BizTalk Server 2006 R2 includes an eagerly anticipated component that tightly integrates RFID functionality, marking a forceful foray into the RFID market by the software giant. While roughly a year overdue, BizTalk RFID does not disappoint, according to a number of sources familiar with the offering.
Sep 26, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

September 26, 2007—Two weeks ago Microsoft officially released a new version of its BizTalk enterprise service-oriented architecture (SOA) platform. Called BizTalk Server 2006 R2, the release includes an eagerly anticipated component that incorporates RFID functionality, marking a forceful foray into the RFID market by the ubiquitous and feared software giant. While roughly a year overdue, BizTalk RFID does not disappoint, according to a number of sources familiar with the offering. In fact, they predict that this release could single-handedly accelerate adoption of RFID.

"A long time in the coming, Microsoft has finally launched its RFID BizTalk Server," wrote John Fontanella of AMR Research in a brief. "The ramifications of its introduction will reverberate throughout the world of RFID, making this a watershed moment in the ongoing effort to create mass adoption of the technology." A strong prediction to be sure, but Fontanella and others offered a number of compelling reasons to support their position.

The first and most obvious is cost. When compared with competing RFID software solutions, "It's cheaper by a factor of ten," Fontanella told RFID Update in a phone call. "It's around five grand, compared to 50 to 100 grand. This puts RFID into reach of every organization." Cost is of course a factor in every purchasing decision, but even more so when it comes to RFID adoption. "We've seen how sensitive the RFID market is to price," Fontanella noted.

As part of the greater BizTalk platform, Microsoft's new offering also enables programmers to rapidly develop new, targeted RFID applications without having to write highly technical code to interface with readers and related hardware. "What this does is abstract away that nasty physical layer," Dean Frew, CEO of RFID solutions provider Xterprise, explained to RFID Update. This proved particularly attractive to Xterprise, whose returnable transport item (RTI) asset tracking application XAM is built atop BizTalk RFID. "Microsoft's offering is all bundled together so that we, as application builders, can truly use this as a platform on which to build our products," Frew said, adding that Xterprise has a number of other targeted RFID applications in the offing.

"This opens up the door to any developer or integrator creating an RFID application," commented Fontanella. "If you and I wanted to start up an RFID application business tomorrow, we would do it with this."

Another advantage to BizTalk RFID is its tight integration with other Microsoft products, which are installed to various degrees in the vast majority of organizations around the world. "The integration with other Microsoft products is pretty amazing," enthused Frew. "Everything from Excel to SharePoint to code libraries."

The reach of its products also means that there exists a rich pool of developers and integrators well-versed in Microsoft technologies from which RFID end users can draw. Fontanella wrote in his brief: "Rather than a select group of skilled technicians trained on specific RFID middleware technologies, we now have a huge community with skills ubiquitous to any IT organization ready to support the RFID infrastructure and blend it creatively with their mainstream technologies. RFID devices and data can now be integrated as easily as barcodes or standard shop-floor, operations-planning-and-control (OPC) instruments."

"Imagine hundreds of thousands of people thinking about RFID where you might have had tens of thousands before," Fontanella said.

He also pointed to the robustness of BizTalk RFID, which has undergone a year of stress testing in the real world with selected partners like Xterprise. "Microsoft had twelve integrators working with it before the official announcement, and a few of them have two or three deployments under their belts," he said. "This thing has already been battle tested."

Frew noted the maturity of the general BizTalk platform, maturity which he believes ensures the power and scalability that BizTalk clients like the London Stock Exchange demand. (Recall that this is an iterative release of BizTalk itself; the RFID component is what's brand new.) "This is not just a little middleware application from Microsoft; this is an enterprise class platform." One of Xterprise's BizTalk-based deployments is processing millions of RFID transactions per month, and another is approaching an install base of two dozen sites.

With so many advantages, surely there must be a catch? Frew and Fontanella both noted that BizTalk RFID could cost tens of thousands of dollars for a multi-server, enterprise-wide deployment, so a leading Wal-Mart supplier would likely not get away with spending just a few thousand. Still, even at scale, the solution's cost beats those of its competitors.

If they are correct about BizTalk RFID's impact (which Fontanella predicts will be felt within six short months), it would represent the second leading technology company this year to enter the RFID market with a disruptive offering. Intel's Gen2 reader chip was introduced in March, leading some to predict a full 50 percent drop in Gen2 reader prices by year-end (see Intel Announces Gen2 RFID Reader Chip and RFID Reader Vendors Rally Around Intel's New Chip).

Interesting to note that it is this same duo -- Microsoft and Intel -- that many credit with the explosion of personal computing. While the dynamics of PC adoption were certainly different than those currently seen in RFID, the so-called "Wintel" hegemon has proved incredibly adept at driving the spread of technologies in the past, so perhaps it will lead the way again with RFID.
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