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RFID's Next Decade

Expect to see more skepticism, innovation, controversy, successes and miracles.
By Kevin Ashton
Feb 01, 2011—It's been a long decade for radio frequency identification. Ten years ago, there was skepticism about whether the technology would ever be cheap enough or useful enough for widespread adoption. Seven years ago, Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense both announced they planned to use RFID in their supply chains, and the skepticism turned to hope. A couple of years later, the hope turned to hype, as entrepreneurs, analysts and investors all rushed into the emerging market. Two or three years ago, when the spoils took longer than expected to materialize, the skepticism resurfaced.

But while perceptions about RFID have yo-yoed, the technology has continued on a steady upward trajectory. Ten years ago, tags were not only expensive but also hard to read. RFID was little known outside a few niche markets, and end users didn't understand it well. There were few widely used standards, no Electronic Product Code, no RFID Journal.

Today, multiple companies make tags to a single standard, the tags operate at speeds and ranges that would have seemed miraculous a decade ago and, best of all, they are affordable. Today's controversy rages about whether tags cost five cents or ten cents, not one dollar or two dollars. RFID is being used in a wide range of sectors, from manufacturing to social networking. RFID Journal is planning its ninth U.S.-based LIVE! conference and exhibition, and runs similar events in Europe and Latin America.

So, what does the new decade hold?

More of the same. While attitudes about RFID, especially on the part of industry outsiders, will hit peaks of delirium and valleys of despair without ever seeming to pass through a middle point of cautious optimism, the innovators who have developed and advanced this technology all along will continue to improve and enhance it. We'll see even lower prices, higher speeds and longer ranges. We'll witness new features, such as sensing and security, evolve from novelties into options and, ultimately, into standards. Pilots and tests will expand steadily and organically into full deployments. There will be new applications, new success studies, new end users.

The economy will buck, just as it has done twice already in this century, and the industry will have to hold on tight when it does, while faint-hearted followers run to the safety of their skepticism as soon as things get tough. But the technology's direction will remain the same as it always has been—onward and upward—independent of, or perhaps in defiance of, all those who are so quick to say it can't be done.

If RFID's past decade has taught us anything about what awaits us in the new one, it is this: We can't know what can't be done—we can only know what hasn't been done. And that's exactly what's next for RFID: another 10 years of doing what hasn't been done. I can't wait to see it.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center.
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