The End of the Beginning

By Mark Roberti

After four years of R&D, the Auto-ID Center closed its doors last week. Despite the controversy that has surrounded the center, it has been enormously successful.

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Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought I heard the clinking of champagne glasses last Friday evening, as the Auto-ID Center officially closed its doors. It wasn’t the staff raising a glass to the completion of their mission or

even Halloween revelers. It was the opponents of the center and its vision celebrating the end of a controversial organization.

Many RFID Journal readers have probably given little thought to the split within the RFID industry between the technology vendors that support the Auto-ID Center’s Electronic Product Code (EPC) technology and the much larger group of vendors that make technology based on standards being created under the auspices of the International Organization for Standardization. Both camps are moving toward creating RFID standards for use in an open supply chain, but the fact that there are two standards, threatens to force end users to choose one or the other—or worse, both.

From the start, RFID Journal has been a strong supporter of the Auto-ID Center. This wasn’t a judgment about the technical superiority of the center’s system. It was based on the rather obvious fact that a significant group of end-user companies—our readers—were behind the center’s vision of using low-cost RFID technology to track cases of product moving through open supply chains. We have also covered the work of the ISO committees and ISO-compliant technologies because RFID Journal provides information, so that users can make smart choices about the technology that meets their needs.

The center has been controversial because it chose not to use air interface protocols—the method by which tags and readers communicate—developed by ISO committees. And it’s been even more controversial for promising the world that it could create an RFID tag that would cost five cents. ISO vendors feel the Auto-ID Center behaved arrogantly and did an end-around an entire industry that had spent millions of dollars and many years developing some pretty good technology. (Some would go further and say it misled end users.) And the Auto-ID Center would say no one was interested in creating the low-cost RFID system that companies such as Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Wal-Mart and others wanted, so they worked with MIT to create their own technology.

Both sides share some of the blame for the current situation. But from where I sit, it seems clear that Auto-ID Center has contributed enormously to the advancement of RFID technology. It showed vendors that there was a pool of very large companies willing to invest millions of dollars in RFID systems—if the price were right. Kevin Ashton, the center’s executive director, crisscrossed the continents and almost single-handedly sold the world on a vision of RFID tags being used to track just about all goods moving through open supply chains. And Sanjay Sarma, the MIT professor who led the center’s research efforts, showed how tying RFID tags to the Internet could make that possible. The world is buzzing about RFID because of the innovative work the center did.

There’s no doubt that the center’s promotion of a five-cent RFID tag hurt established vendors, because many potential buyers of RFID technologies refused to invest in more expensive systems (foolishly, in my view). That, understandably, has made companies selling more expensive read-write RFID tags angry. But in the long term, using low-cost RFID tags on everything will drive demand for more expensive read-write tags, which are needed for many applications.

The Auto-ID Center is not disappearing entirely; it is transitioning to a new stage. The center’s R&D work will be handled by a new entity called Auto-ID Labs. And EPCglobal, a joint venture between EAN International and the Uniform Code Council, has been created to commercialize the technology.

As the technology emerges from academia into the marketplace, it will face new challenges. Individual companies will want the technology to evolve in ways that suit their needs. There is already pressure from end users, including the U.S. military, for EPC protocols to evolve toward ISO protocols, so that there can be a global system for tracking goods with RFID technology. It will be up to EPCglobal to manage these issues in a way that meets the needs of the vast majority of end users. I’m confident it will be able to do that because it is an end user-driven organization.

As new technologies emerge, there are always competing views. There are always winners and losers among vendors who back different approaches. There are always investors who get burned. No matter what happens now, the people who worked hard at that Auto-ID Center should certainly feel proud of their achievement. They have executed on their vision and given companies around the world a reason to be excited about using RFID technology. And if those managing ISO and EPC standards can work toward interoperability, then we will all have a a reason to celebrate.

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal.

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