Changing Perceptions of RFID

By Mark Roberti

I am hearing from many people who say more companies seem to "get" radio frequency identification—and for good reason.


Perceptions of new technologies change over time. That’s what both the Gartner Hype Cycle and Geoffrey Moore’s technology adoption life cyle are all about. Initially, there is a great deal of optimism about a new technology, as there was about radio frequency identification from 2003 to 2005. But then reality sets in. Companies find that it’s more complex than they were initially led to believe. The technology falls into the “trough of disillusionment” or the “chasm.”

Over time, the technology matures. In the case of RFID, tag manufacturers developed passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags that can work on metal and around water, and that can be read more consistently, regardless of orientation, and at longer distances. Active RFID solution providers increased the location accuracy of their products and made performance more reliable.

As the technology improves, a greater number of companies begin to adopt it in order to solve specific business problems. Those successful deployments end up being publicized in articles and at events. Journalists, technology analysts, consultants and end users take a more positive approach to the technology, and perceptions within the business community at large begin to change.

This is where we are with RFID right now. Perceptions are changing. Positive articles are replacing highly negative ones. Companies that dismissed the technology a few years ago are now taking a second look. Retailers that once questioned the likely return on investment are now much less skeptical.

As a result, decisions to deploy the technology are now being made much more quickly. A retailer that began investigating RFID’s potential in 2007 probably took three years just to launch a pilot and five more to perform a rollout. Our research shows that a retailer just beginning to investigate RFID today is likely to launch a pilot within a year and a rollout within two. I expect the time to roll out a system will continue to grow shorter as knowledge of the technology’s value increases and solution providers take steps to make RFID easier to deploy on a large scale.

We are moving inexorably toward the tipping point. This does not mean RFID will take off in 2015, nor does not it mean there aren’t external events that could potentially cause perceptions to change again. But it seems clear that all signs are pointing to continued growth in RFID adoption, as each new deployment leads to more deployments, just as Geoffrey Moore, the author of Crossing the Chasm, had predicted would happen.

The challenge for both RFID solution providers and end users is to be slightly ahead of the curve. Solution providers need to be ready to scale their businesses to be able to increase production of tags and readers, so they can deploy solutions to many facilities simultaneously. Vendors don’t want to ramp up production too early because that would lead to cash-flow problems. But they also can’t wait too long, because if the technology hits the tipping point and they can’t meet demand, they won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunity.

The timing issue is less tricky for end users, but I think it’s still there. If you wait too long and decide to deploy RFID only after it hits the tipping point, you will find it a challenge to find a systems integrator with the bandwidth to take on your project. It might also be hard to secure timely deliveries of tags and readers. Hiring people with knowledge of RFID and the ability to manage projects or develop software might be very difficult.

The timing of events is always the hardest thing to predict. I think we are roughly two years away from RFID reaching the tipping point—but it could be one, three or possibly four. It’s difficult to say, because adoption will continue to accelerate, but no one knows at what rate of progression. There also could be unexpected events that propel adoption forward (just as I said there could be those that slow it down). The only thing to do, I believe, is to start preparing now and be ready whenever the “tornado” arrives.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.