When Will the Press Wake Up?

Mainstream business magazines and newspapers continue to largely ignore radio frequency identification. The question on my mind is, why?
Published: May 5, 2009

Apr. 24, 2009—When I first heard about the Internet in 1992, I became excited about its potential and switched the focus of my journalism career from business reporting to business technology, covering the ‘Net as it evolved. It took seven years from when I first heard the term for the mainstream business media to begin widely reporting on the Internet, and then it was hailed as a technology that would transform businesses and create a “new economy.” As a result, Internet companies went public without so much as a business plan, soaring to ridiculous heights on the stock market.

In 2000, when I was covering how companies were using the Internet to better manage their supply chains, I learned about something called radio frequency identification. Nine years later, RFID deployments have spread to every corner of the world, and to every known industry. Unlike the Internet in the early days, however, RFID has delivered real benefits to many companies. This week, at RFID Journal LIVE! 2009, more than 50 companies will present case studies illustrating how they are employing RFID to improve the way they do business. And yet, the technology continues to get little play in the mainstream business media, and I can’t quite figure out why.

There could be several explanations for this. The technology was oversold in 2003 and 2004, based on the concept of using Electronic Product Codes (EPCs) to track boxes through the global supply chain. Few retailers have joined Wal-Mart and Metro in deploying the technology, so to the mainstream media, it might appear that RFID has fizzled.

An article published in the Wall Street Journal in 2007 erroneously suggested exactly that, in fact (see Don’t Let Misperceptions of RFID Become Reality and Wal-Mart, Suppliers Affirm RFID Benefits). What the media is missing is that all forms of RFID—high-frequency, ultrahigh-frequency, active and so forth—are delivering value in myriad closed-loop applications.

It could be that CIOs and the media have become far more skeptical regarding the technology’s transformative powers. The Internet was heavily hyped, so many companies invested heavily in it. Remember when Jack Welch was saying he would turn General Electric into the world’s greatest dot.com? In the end, the Internet proved far more powerful than even the most aggressive hype artists could have ever imagined—but given the amount of money wasted on Internet technologies, CIOs don’t wants to bet their careers by claiming RFID is the next transformative technology.

Another real possibility is that RFID is just too complicated. Journalists like simple stories. The simple Internet story was that businesses would cut out the middlemen and sell tons of goods online at lower costs, and with higher profits. But that part of the Internet hype turned out to be mostly untrue—only a small portion of global retail sales is conducted online, and there are still plenty of people who shop in stores.

RFID’s story was also simple, in the beginning, when it was hinged to EPC technology and Wal-Mart: Things would be connected to the Internet via radio tags, it was said, enabling them to be tracked efficiently through the global supply chain. Unfortunately, the idea that RFID could track assets, reduce counterfeiting, improve customer service, enhance patient safety, improve inventory tracking, safeguard the food supply and so forth is just too complex to make a succinct storyline the business media can run with.

Moreover, Katherine Albrecht, founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), has told a simple and compelling—albeit untrue—story to the media: that RFID will be used to track everything people do, and to usher in an error of Big Brother-like oppression (see Spychips Revisited and Be Wary of Religious Opposition to RFID). This, it seems, has been deemed more likely to sell magazines and newspapers than “RFID can dramatically improve efficiencies across many industries and many areas of a company’s operations.”

There’s also the cynic in me who believes the business press was prepared to swallow anything Wall Street analysts fed them about the Internet, and that those analysts had a vested interest in hyping the ‘Net because their companies were getting rich taking dot.coms public. If those same analysts saw an opportunity to hype RFID for the same reason, the business press would suddenly begin writing articles about how RFID is going to usher in the “wireless economy.” (I’m not suggesting I want to see Wall Street hyping RFID, mind you.)

The truth is that all of these factors have probably contributed to RFID’s low standing with the business press, and I guess that’s OK. Those attending RFID Journal LIVE! this week, and who read our Web site daily, know the technology delivers value. RFID adoption is spreading on the basis of its merits, without coverage in the mainstream business press. And eventually, the folks at Business Week, Fortune and Forbes will catch up with the news they’re supposed to be reporting.

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 or click here.