It’s a Small World After All

By Kevin Ashton

Everyone will benefit if companies set aside their national (or personal) agendas and work toward a global EPC standard.

  • TAGS

There’s been much hand-wringing lately about how to make the Electronic Product Code standards global. China is making some people anxious. Others worry about Germany, France and Japan, although EPC Generation 2 seems to be making some progress in those countries.

This is not a new problem. Most standards processes have a veneer of internationalism but in truth are dominated by companies from one or two nations. Often we end up with competing regional standards, in everything from cell phones to two-dimensional bar codes. The Internet is a rare example of a global standard that, tellingly, was developed outside of conventional international standards processes.

The world used to be big enough to accommodate multiple competing standards. But it isn’t anymore: Travel is easier, trade barriers are lower, and big companies expect to be able to source and sell goods anywhere.

So we’re in uncharted waters with EPC standards. As the first major technology to emerge in the global, post-Internet age, it truly needs to interoperate the world over. This is a problem that has never really been solved before. But some things seem clear.

First, it’s better to think about nations, not regions. A few years ago I heard this comment during an RFID standards meeting: “These damned Europeans don’t think internationally.” The speaker, an American, had forgotten that Europe is a continent. Europeans, damned or otherwise, are international by definition. The United States is not North America (there is also Canada and Mexico); everything from Iceland to Ibiza is not one monolithic Europe or, worse, EMEA (for Europe, Middle East and Africa); and we can’t flatten half the world from Mumbai to Shanghai into one homogeneous Asia.

Second, companies are not nations. Governments are national, and care about national interests. Companies are global and interested only in themselves. Whenever a company plays the national card and says, “My country needs its own standard,” it almost certainly means, “We want our company’s technology to be a standard.” The nationalism is just another tactic to try to win the standards battle.

Third, companies and governments want standards in which they have a stake. When it comes to driving adoption, no technical argument or performance metric can outweigh a sense of ownership. As more nations take an interest in EPC, companies from more nations must be given an active role in developing EPC standards. Want to stop China from developing its own standard? Let its companies take a leadership role in developing EPC Generation 3.

As the Internet shows, a global standard is the optimal driver of competition, innovation and value. A truly global EPC standard is the only goal any of us should be willing to accept, no matter where we come from.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center. He is the author of a soon-to-be published book about RFID.