Perfect Harmony

By Kevin Ashton

Different RFID technologies should work together to solve end users' needs.


Some people treat technology like religion. They try to convert others, get self-righteous when someone indicates a preference for something slightly different and generally believe they have found the one true way.

RFID has lots of churches: high frequency, low frequency, ultrahigh frequency, active, passive, battery assisted, EPC Generation 2, ISO, near field, far field, microwave. And these are just the broad categories—many have subsets, too. Active tags, for example, use a variety of different frequencies and communications techniques, and each has its advocates.

So which one is right? All of them. Different applications have different needs, and different types of RFID have different strengths and weaknesses. High-frequency systems are short range, but are good at penetrating materials. Battery-assisted tags have long range, but are expensive. And so on.

But there’s a problem. Lots of use cases have needs that no one approach can meet. Some supply-chain applications call for long read ranges that can be met only with large UHF tags, as well as the short, penetrating ranges that smaller HF tags provide. And real-time location systems need powerful battery tags to get general information about where something is, but also have to determine the precise location, a task that is better suited to passive systems.

The solution is obvious: Find a way to have it all—passive, active, HF, UHF all working in perfect harmony. Then end users can choose whatever RFID mix suits their needs. The end result would be like an orchestra or a football team—lots of specialists working together, enhancing each other’s capabilities.

That’s far from impossible. These technologies can work well together if there are common standards that unite them. The first step is to set standards within each category. In some cases, these steps have already been taken. For example, UHF passive tags have several EPC and ISO standards, and HF has two ISO standards and will soon have two from EPC as well. In other categories, such as battery-powered tags, both active and semi-passive standards are still needed desperately.

Beyond standards, there’s another step. Call it “meta-standards”—common ways for multiple standard technologies to work together easily and painlessly. This process is often known as “convergence,” and it’s an important step for emerging technologies. Digital cameras, for example, were developed independently of cell phones, but once standards had created separate mass markets for each, there was enough innovation and interest to bring the two together in camera phones. The same will be true for many RFID systems. Technologies that today are considered separate will soon be united around the common goal of better solving users’ problems.

And this end result is all that matters. The different RFID technologies should not compete—they should complement one another. The variety must become transparent to all but the most technically involved, with only the benefits remaining visible to the rest of us. End users shouldn’t have to care what church their RFID belongs to. They need to know only that it solves their problems.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center. Illustration by Phil Bliss.