Seeing RFID Through a Bar-Coded Lens

A post by technology historian Edward Tenner on The Atlantic's Web site raises some interesting issues—and draws some erroneous conclusions.
Published: June 20, 2011

The passing of Alan Haberman, the chief supporter of bar-code technology in the 1960s and 1970s (see Remembering Alan Haberman), has prompted technology history Edward Tenner to post an item comparing the adoption of radio frequency identification to that of bar codes (see Hard Times Promote Innovation: RFID’s Road to Mainstream).

I didn’t cover the adoption of bar codes when it was happening, but Tenner is right when he notes, in his article, that standards were critical. The major retailers formed a committee to assess a variety of bar-code technologies, and to choose one they would all use, in order to avoid the problem of manufacturers having to put one symbol on products for one supermarket and a different one for those of another store.

I think he is wrong, however, in suggesting that bar codes took more than 20 years—from the first patent until the first commercial product was scanned—due to a lack of cooperation or business need. The simple fact is that computers and lasers—two components essential to making bar codes work—were not yet available in 1960 at a cost that businesses could afford.

Haberman’s committee was critical, in that it built a consensus for a single standard. But Tenner’s interpretation of how those events might be affecting RFID is a stretch. He writes: “The 21st-century counterpart of the bar code, radio frequency identification (RFID), has not yet found its own Haberman—partly because of the unintended consequences of his advocacy. The big winner was not his own companies, Hills-Korvette and Finast, but a still relatively obscure newcomer in Arkansas, Walmart, that was exploiting point-of-sale and inventory data more effectively than anybody else, to the consternation of competitors large and small.”

While it’s true that Wal-Mart Stores was better at exploiting bar codes than supermarkets, I’m not sure that has anything to do with the adoption of RFID. Tenner seems to be suggesting that other players didn’t jump on the RFID bandwagon because Wal-Mart would use that wagon to extend its market lead over them. He writes: “Would Haberman’s colleagues have been so eager to sign on if they had known? Today, Walmart is the pioneer of RFID, but others haven’t been so eager to follow because of the privacy issues it raises. Whether or not it’s an ‘evolutionary dead end,’ as technology publisher and guru Tim O’Reilly has declared, the days of chummy consensus are over.”

I would say that privacy issues have had little impact on the pace of RFID adoption, and the history of RFID is fairly similar to that of the bar code. It was Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Gillette, two fierce competitors (now the same company) that backed the Auto-ID Center, which developed the Electronic Product Code (EPC). P&G and Gillette also did a great deal of work within EPCglobal to create standards for sharing EPC data, as did Wal-Mart and Target.

Today, we have many competitors, including Wal-Mart, Dillards, JCPenney, Jones Apparel and Macy’s, supporting the VICS Item Level RFID Initiative, to create a standardized way to deploy RFID in the apparel and retail sectors. This committee’s work is very similar to what Alan Haberman did in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Will RFID take as long as bar codes did to be adopted? Clearly not. The technology is already being utilized in stores, and the computer systems, as well as the wide and local area networks, necessary to exploit the technology are, for the most part, already in place.

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.