Remembering Alan Haberman

The bar-code pioneer was a huge supporter of RFID technology and RFID Journal.
Published: June 18, 2011

I’m rarely at a loss for words, but since I learned of the passing of Alan Haberman, the man largely responsible for getting the grocery industry to adopt the bar code, I have been struggling to put my thoughts down on paper. I didn’t know Alan extremely well, but he took me under his wing very soon after I launched RFID Journal, and was a big supporter of my company, of radio frequency identification technology in general and of the Electronic Product Code (EPC) standard.

You can read about the details of his life in his New York Times obituary, posted here: Alan Haberman, Who Ushered In the Bar Code, Dies at 81. But briefly, Alan was a supermarket executive who led a committee of other supermarket execs established to chose a bar-code standard, the adoption of which he then promoted. He was a long-time board member of the Uniform Code Council (UCC), which managed the Universal Product Code (UPC), as the bar code became known (UCC is now GS1).

As I understand it, around the time of the bar code’s 30th anniversary, in 1999, some folks within UCC felt it was time to begin examining new technologies that could be the next-generation bar code, and Alan was put in charge of this effort. He visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and discovered some work being done there by Sanjay Sarma and David Brock, which would link inexpensive passive RFID tags to online databases via the Internet.

Alan realized this could be the next-generation bar code. The UCC and its counterpart in Europe, EAN International (which managed the European Article Number), along with Procter & Gamble and Gillette, put up funding to create the Auto-ID Center, with Sarma as the head of research. (Brock went off to work on computer languages.) The Auto-ID Center created the first air-interface protocol, as well as other concepts that became the foundation of the Electronic Product Code.

When UCC licensed the EPC technology from MIT and created EPCglobal to commercialize it, Alan was a great champion of the technology. He attended RFID Journal‘s first LIVE! event, held in 2003 in Chicago, Ill., and stood up at the end of the conference, took the mic and said, “I’ve been going to events like this for many, many years. This is the best one I’ve ever been to.” I wanted to kiss him.

Over the years, Alan became a confidant. If I had trouble getting through to a GS1 board member, I would call Alan, and he would make it happen for me. In addition, he would sometimes call me and ask for my advice. He once said he was planning to say in a public forum that we should simply kill all tags at the point of sale, to end the privacy issue once and for all. I told him I didn’t think that was a good idea, because although I supported the goal of ensuring privacy and solving the PR issue caused by privacy concerns, it would mean never using RFID for after-sales support, recycling and many other good applications. Alan considered my point, and then went ahead with what he’d planned to say anyway.

What I loved about Alan was that he was a no-nonsense guy who never suffered fools gladly. He would offer you his unvarnished opinion, sometimes in very blunt (and salty) language. He slowed down in his last few years, however. I didn’t get to see him at events, and I don’t think we talked at all over the past two years, but I thought about him often. I’d wonder what he would think about this or that.

The world clearly owes a great debt to Alan Haberman for his work in making the bar code ubiquitous (a study revealed that the technology saves supermarkets $17 billion annually), and for championing RFID as the next technology for identifying and tracking goods. I owe him a personal debt for the support he gave me when I launched RFID Journal. He didn’t need to lift a finger to help me, but he always did. For that, I will always be grateful.

Rest in peace, Alan. I will miss you.

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.