From Ridiculous to Ubiquitous

By Kevin Ashton

What the not-so-sudden success of Near-Field Communication tells us about the future of other RFID technologies.

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In the late 1960s, laser technology was used only by researchers—and the crew of the Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV series. The idea that lasers—or “phasers,” as Captain Kirk called them—would find a common purpose outside advanced science labs seemed as absurd as teleportation devices and warp drives. Yet, by the 1970s, American grocers were embracing the UPC bar-code identification system, and by the 1980s, lasers were everywhere, or at least at every checkout counter. In fact, in 1992, U.S. President George Bush was accused of being out of touch when he was amazed at seeing a scanner during a public appearance at a grocery store in Orlando, Fla.

Around the same time, another new technology—the cell phone—was on the rise, expanding its functions to become a “smart phone” capable of doing far more than just making calls. Meanwhile, researchers at Philips Semiconductor, now NXP, and others had a collective vision: mobile phones that could “talk” to each other and to other devices, enabling contactless payments and information exchange. In 2001, 10 years after the first single-chip RFID tags appeared, these companies started to embed RFID in cell phones. They called their proposed system Near-Field Communication (NFC). The name has a double meaning: “near field” refers to the high-frequency RFID solution for close-up tag reading, and to the fact that the technology works mainly within a wavelength’s distance—what engineers call the near field—where there is a strong inductive power to charge up the tag.

NFC’s proponents worked hard to develop and promote their technology, achieving ISO standards designations. Yet, few people outside the RFID industry had heard of the technology, and it looked like NFC would be a bust. Then, things changed, seemingly overnight. At the end of 2010, the world’s giant mobile phone makers announced plans almost simultaneously to include NFC readers in future phones. What’s more, nearly all new BlackBerry devices will include the technology. Google’s Android operating system will support NFC. Rumors and job postings suggest Apple also may be adopting NFC, though the technology didn’t make it into the recently released second-generation iPad. During the next five years, we’ll likely enter a world in which we all have personal RFID readers in our pockets—an idea that, like commercial lasers, will have taken about 25 years to go from ridiculous to ubiquitous.

What does the success of NFC (and laser scanners) tell us about the prospects for other RFID technologies? If it takes two and half decades for an idea to mature from nowhere to everywhere, we should be in for an interesting few years as more of the technologies inspired by those early single-chip tags begin to ripen. The concept of item-level tagging dates back to the late 1990s, so it comes due around 2015—and with the rise of apparel tagging, we’re right on track. Inexpensive tags with integrated sensors were widely discussed a few years after that—which gives us some indication of what comes next. Perhaps the secret to taking a crazy thought from far-fetched to near field is simply to add 25 years of hard work and patience.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center.