Motorola’s False Starts in RFID

It's not clear how much emphasis Motorola would give to Symbol's RFID efforts, if the proposed acquisition goes through, but Motorola doesn't exactly have a stellar track record in the RFID field.
Published: September 26, 2006

There’s been a lot of buzz among vendors and users of radio frequency identification technologies about exactly what Motorola’s planned acquisition of Symbol Technologies will mean for Symbol’s growing RFID business. The truth is, no one really knows at this early stage, but let’s hope Motorola’s track record in RFID is not an indication of what’s to come.

As a leading developer of wireless technologies, Motorola has a fairly long history in the RFID space. Back in the 1980s, it developed a battlefield system designed to help the military track the location of soldiers in real time. Soldiers would wear a battery-powered transponder that would send out a signal every few seconds indicating their location. Commanders would be able to radio orders to move based on this information, and medics would be able to pinpoint the precise location of wounded soldiers so they could be treated.

The U.S. Department of Defense did not go forward with the system, probably because of the difficulty of setting up interrogators that wouldn’t be destroyed on the battlefield. The patents for this system were sold in the early 1990s to a company called Technology Systems International Inc. (TSI), which was purchased by Alanco Technologies. TSI developed a successful system for tracking prison inmates location within correctional facilities. It’s being used at prisons in California, Missouri and elsewhere.

In the 1990s, Motorola developed a low-cost RFID system called BiStatix, which used antennas printed with carbon inks. At the time, the company hailed this as a major breakthrough for RFID. But when Motorola ran into financial problems, it shut down the R&D effort needed to bring BiStatix technology to market. It did license the technology to PowerPaper in 2003, but to my knowledge, PowerPaper hasn’t released a product using BiStatix technology.

Motorola recovered nicely from its financial difficulties by focusing on its highly successful cell phone business, but it never let go entirely of RFID. A year ago, it had plans to launch a major effort to sell a real-time locating system to the distribution and logistics sector. It was going to jump into the market largely owned by Savi Technology and WhereNet. Then, without explanation, it decided to pull the plug on that before it ever announced the initiative to the public.

Large technology companies often develop products that never get to market, and I’m not suggesting that because Motorola hasn’t launched a successful RFID business in the past it will make a hash of Symbol’s growing RFID business. Business priorities change, and tomorrow I’ll explain why I think Motorola should put RFID front and center as it integrates Symbol into its own operations.