Products Outpace Solutions

By Mark Roberti

It's exciting to see the rapid evolution of tags and readers, but end users are looking for solutions.


I wrote last week about three impressive products featured at RFID Journal LIVE! 2015 (see Outstanding Products Featured at LIVE! 2015). There were many others. In fact, I’ve told audiences that there is almost nothing that can’t be tagged, tracked and managed via radio frequency identification. While that’s true, the industry still lacks the complete solutions that end users want and need.

What do I mean by that? Well, if you are a retailer, manufacturer or oil company, you often have to buy tags from one company, readers from another and software from a third, and then hire a systems integrator to put it all together. Some integrators offer software to help you buy the tags and readers you need, but these companies tend to perform highly customized projects in which they evaluate and choose the best-of-breed hardware for certain applications.

According to Geoffrey Moore, author of “Crossing the Chasm,” “Inside the Tornado” and other seminal works on technology adoption, for a technology to reach mass adoption, there needs to be a whole product that does almost everything the end user needs it to do. He cites Apple‘s iPod as an example. There were MP3 players out before the iPod, but you had to buy the player, get your songs ripped from a CD and then buy software to get them onto you MP3 player. Apple came along and provided a whole product—the iPod and iTunes (and perhaps the iMac, which came with a CD drive that automatically recognized your music CD and asked if you wanted to copy the songs to your iTunes library so you could assemble play lists for your MP3 player).

Today, the RFID industry is pretty much where the MP3 player was before the iPod. A few years ago, Moore told me that he thought end users would force RFID companies to form partnerships to build the whole product. In retail, we are beginning to see that happen. But there are still few formal partnerships. That’s because reader companies don’t want to align with one software company for fear of losing out on deals won by other software firms, and vice versa.

You might ask yourself, “What difference does it make?” If readers work with any software and tags, there should be no problem for the end user. That’s true, but history (and Moore) shows us that that is not how it works. Technologies take off when there is one obvious solution that everyone buys—the IBM PC running Microsoft Windows, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad and so forth. The market leader gets 70 percent or more of the market, before upstarts start to offer a similar whole product at a lower cost and begin to take market share.

I believe the retail sector is closest to achieving mass adoption, but I don’t think it will reach that point until there is a group of companies that retailers can point to as the go-to solution for their industry. It could be that tags and readers will become so easy to deploy that they will be interchangeable, but the market still won’t adopt until one software company emerges as the “gorilla”—the dominant technology supplier. Once that occurs, all retailers will move to adopt that solution.

Mass adoption in retail—when it happens—will drive adoption in other sectors as well. We are already seeing big retail deployments receiving headlines, and that is encouraging companies to take a first or second look at RFID. That will only increase as retail adoption picks up. But other industries won’t reach mass adoption until they, too, have a whole product. I’d encourage all RFID companies to read or reread “Crossing the Chasm.”

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.