RFID By Any Other Name

By Mark Roberti

While RFID technology is evolving, the term remains a touchstone for people looking to use RFID systems to solve business problems.


At our recent RFID Journal LIVE! 2011 conference and exhibition, held last month in Orlando, Fla., three people asked me if I planned to change the name of RFID Journal to something broader. One mentioned the growing interest in wireless sensors as justification for such a change. Another said, “visibility and traceability require a lot more than just RFID tags.” I don’t recall the third person’s point of view.

I hear comments like this all the time, and have ever since I first launched RFID Journal, nearly a decade ago. I understand the thinking, though I believe it is flawed. Let me explain why.

First, radio frequency identification is an enabling technology. It enables many functions, including supply chain visibility, product authentication, access control to buildings, payment transactions and inventory management. And many of these applications are linked—or, perhaps I should say they should be linked in the future.

For instance, if you tag items so you can track them through the supply chain, you could also reduce theft by linking an RFID access-control system with your inventory-management system. Knowing who was entering and leaving an area when products disappeared could reduce the incidence of employee theft. It’s impossible for one name to encompass the myriad of RFID applications we cover on our Web site, in our print magazine and at our events. PC Magazine, after all, isn’t just about personal computers—it also covers software, peripherals, the World Wide Web, smartphones and so forth.

Second, the term “RFID” is shorthand for the entire system of collecting, sharing and using RFID data—that is, for the systems that create visibility, traceability and so on. We write about how such systems enable companies to improve the way they do business. Yet, people relate more to a thing than to a concept. They buy cars, not transportation. They purchase PCs, not word-processing, spreadsheet- and presentation-creation capabilities. Similarly, they will buy RFID, not visibility. Just as the PC represents everything that hardware, software and networking technologies enable, RFID represents everything that tags, readers, software and networking technologies enable.

Third, devices that have a unique identification number and utilize radio waves to communicate that ID are part of the RFID ecosystem, and do not require a special name. RFID is engendering an explosion of low-cost wireless sensors, and some feel that adding an accelerometer or temperature sensor to an RFID transponder somehow makes the device no longer an RFID device. That’s like saying that plugging a printer into your computer suddenly means it’s no longer a computer since it now prints, or that adding a CD player to a car makes it no longer a car.

If you’re tracking a shipment of pharmaceuticals that must be stored within a specific temperature range, then knowing a device’s ID is as critical as knowing the temperature. Otherwise, you can’t find the drugs that are outside the required temperature range.

There are some automatic-identification technologies, such as 2-D bar codes, infrared and ultrasound, that are not RFID. But we are a source of information about those technologies as well, because they work in much the same way that RFID does (ultrasound uses sound waves instead of radiation waves), and for the same purposes. Some solutions employ a combination of technologies, such as RFID and infrared. Our special report, “How to Choose the Right RFID System: A Step-by-Step Guide” includes a description of 2-D bar codes, infrared and ultrasound, and explains their strengths and weaknesses (see RFID Journal Offers Guide to Choosing the Right RFID System and How to Choose the Right RFID System).

As RFID technology evolves, the term “RFID” will continue to be a touchstone for everything encompassed by RFID systems. I believe the name RFID Journal will be as relevant 30 years after RFID goes mainstream, as PC Magazine is now, 30 years after its launch in 1982.

We’re happy to stick with the name.

See also:

Why RFID Vendors and Users Speak Different Languages

In The Name of RFID

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.