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Event Highlights RFID Industry Rift

Speakers presented conflicting visions of where RFID is going and what it can do for businesses at a conference this week.
Sep 24, 2002Sept. 24, 2002 -- This year's RFID Summit, held as part of Frontline Solutions annual conference, drew only about 275 delegates this year, compared to 450 last year.

No doubt, the smaller attendance was due to the economic downturn and travel restrictions at many companies. But it may also be a result of the growing confusion within the industry. Certainly, some of those who came to learn how RFID could help their business left scratching their head.

"You hear different things from different speakers," said one delegate, who requested that her name not be used. "Some say a five-cent tag is impossible and then the next speaker stands up and tells you how they are going to tag every product manufactured."

The problem stems, in part, from the Auto-ID Center's much-publicized goal of creating a global standard for tracking goods using low-cost RFID. Vendors of proprietary systems are openly skeptical of the center's claims and question some of the center's more ambitious goals, such as creating a tag that would cost about five cents when produced in volume.

But the problem goes deeper. Bob Scher, CEO of Dynasys Technologies Inc., a Clearwater, Fl.-based reseller, pointed out that there is no company in the United States currently selling smart labels. He imports labels from Europe. Scher told his audience that many of the big vendors say they offer RFID products, but won't sell them unless you buy millions of tags.

Scher also spoke about the problems the industry has suffered because some vendors make promises they can't keep. "If they tell you that you can read their UHF tag from 20 feet," he told the delegates, "make them show you." Other speakers made similar comments.

In the afternoon session, Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID Center, explained the center's vision. He alluded to the fact that many people don't believe the center can achieve its lofty ambitious, when he explained that an RFID chip is basically a microcomputer that can be networked wirelessly and recognized by other computers.

"That's how crazy we are," Ashton said. "We want to turn every product in the world into a wirelessly networked computer. If you are going to be crazy, it helps to have crazy friends, because it's all relative."

He then displayed the list of Auto-ID Center sponsors ? his friends ? and put up some impressive figures. Twenty-seven of the sponsors are in the Fortune Global 500 and nine are in the Global 100. Their total revenue is $1.8 trillion per year, and their combined profit is $48 billion per year.

Ashton showed video ? some of which is available on the center's Web site ? of some of the center's sponsors talking about the value of the center's work and the importance of the technology. Their upbeat message was in stark contrast to the dour notes sounded by some of the morning speakers.

"It was very impressive," one delegate said of Ashton's presentation. "But I'm not sure what to believe."
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