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Hex Is Not the Standard

EPC Gen 2 RFID buyers beware: Just because hardware is certified as interoperable does not mean its applications are interchangeable.
By Patrick King
May 25, 2009I believe that 100 percent of Electronic Product Code (EPC) Gen 2 RFID and ISO-18000-6C applications, beyond the most basic EPC applications, are proprietary and closed-loop. My fear is that some new clients for EPC Gen 2 and ISO-18000-6C ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID applications in 2009 will wrongly believe they are buying a globally interchangeable application, when their solution is actually closed-loop.

I was duly impressed with the number of attendees and the caliber of offerings at RFID Journal LIVE! 2009, held in Orlando, Fla., on Apr. 27-29. The majority of the demonstrations were tied to critical business cases and real requirements met by those applications. The relative maturity of the industry was also evidenced by the inherent interoperability of devices—namely, chips, tags and readers. However, just because the hardware is interoperable does not mean the applications in which it is deployed are interchangeable.

Before I provide some definitions, I need to make a few points very clear. First, when RFID tags and interrogators receive EPCglobal certification, it merely means that for a certified EPC application, the tags and readers are 100 percent interchangeable and interoperable. The second point is that the number of certified EPC applications outside of retail and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is small compared with the total number of emerging applications that utilize the exact same readers and tags, but for applications that do not comply with the EPCglobal and ISO-18000-6C standards. And finally, for 100 percent of applications that are EPC-based (but include additional user information) and 100 percent of non-EPC applications (including those for which Protocol Control Bit 17h is a binary 1 and the application follows ISO 15962 encodation), there is 100 percent interoperability but zero percent interchangeability today (see Identifying RFID's Biggest Threats).

The concept of interoperability is very simple to understand. At present, you can buy a cell phone from many suppliers and resellers, and you can also change service providers. This is a good example of interoperability. For quad-band GSM cell phones, we even have interchangeability. Just plug in the SIM card of the operator you want to use, and it becomes part of that network—regardless of where or how it was purchased. At RFID Journal LIVE! 2009, there were great examples of interoperability for tags and readers. The tags could be programmed and read by interrogators from many vendors, service providers and resellers, and the readers could do likewise. It was very much like the cell phone analogy, which I like because the cell phone is a wireless example not too dissimilar from RFID.

This is truly an exciting time for the auto-identification industry, and I am reminded of the early days of 2-D bar codes. At the Scantech Expo in 1989, many companies could print Data Matrix 2-D labels, and many scanners could read those labels.

If that was so good then, what is the problem now?

The issue is that both in the 2-D example and at LIVE! 2009, there was almost no interchangeability. The machine-to-machine interfaces (as in reader to tag, or imager to bar-code label) were fully interoperable, but the interrogators displayed only the raw data—in this case, the machine-based hex programming code in which the RFID tag or bar-code label's data was written. The readers did not (or could not) translate the hex code back into the original human-readable words and numbers. The exceptions were when the label and readers were matched by employing the same proprietary encodation process.

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