Tech Companies Hate the Physical World

Google, Apple, Microsoft and other technology giants are not getting behind RFID. Perhaps the reason is that the real world is just too messy.
Published: January 7, 2019

During the holidays, I read a bunch of articles about 2019 being the year of artificial intelligence (AI), or at least a year in which the big tech companies—Apple, Google and Microsoft—will increase their efforts to be the leaders in developing AI software and devices. I started wondering why AI would be viewed as so critical to their futures, whereas a technology like radio frequency identification, which delivers the data needed for computers to understand the real world, would not be.

There could be a few reasons for this. AI algorithms are proprietary, so a company that develops truly advanced AI would have a competitive advantage over other firms. RFID technology involves the capturing of large amounts of data. AI can be applied to that data, but the raw information is more of a commodity.

Another reason is that Google, Apple and Microsoft are more focused on consumers than on businesses. Having assistants that make a person’s life easier, better or happier can lead to big sales. Telling them where their socks are located is probably not the way to generate billions of dollars in new revenue.

But here’s the thing that puzzles me: the biggest problem that companies face is not analyzing their data. It’s managing the physical objects they make, move or sell. Retailers know which products sell and which ones don’t. What they struggle with is managing their inventory—keeping the things that sell on shelves, so that they can sell more.

Manufactures struggle with where their tools and parts are located, which finished inventory should be shipped first, and so on. Logistics companies are able to analyze the data they have regarding their fleets’ performance. What they lack is a handle on where their chassis are located, where containers have been stored, and where jacks, carts and other items can be found.

Why are none of the tech giants focused on solving these issues using RFID? Clearly, there is a lot of money to be made if a firm can address these issues. One reason, of course, is that they see little near-term revenue in it—and investors demand near-term profits. But I think another reason is that the tech giants are just not that comfortable with the real world, which is messy and difficult to control.

In cyberspace, all you need to worry about are bits and bytes. There are no issues with physical objects ending up missing, products being stolen, metal walls blocking RF signals, humans forgetting to scan bar codes, or many other issues that make operating in the real world more difficult than merely processing ones and zeroes.

There is a huge business opportunity in breaking down the barrier between the real and digital worlds. That’s why RFID firms have been investing in improving their tags and readers to the point at which they are extremely consistent in collecting data. But it will take time for companies to realize there are big benefits in solving real-world problems, because they are being distracted by a lot of hype surrounding artificial intelligence.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal.