The Image of the IoT vs. RFID

By Mark Roberti

Many people see Internet of Things technologies in a positive light, despite problems, but do not view RFID the same way. The question is: Why?

I received an email last week from Consumers International, an umbrella group of consumer organizations, regarding a short video it had created to warn parents about toys linked to the Internet (watch the video). It highlights how toys with cameras or microphones can be hacked and used to spy on families. The video got me wondering: why, when there are so many negatives associated with the Internet of Things (IoT), do so many businesspeople view it in a positive light—and why did so many still have a negative perception of radio frequency identification technology?

A little history: back in the early 2000s, RFID was considered a new technology that was going to change everything. News articles were extremely positive. Then, around 2006 or 2007, the technology went into the "chasm," as Geoffrey Moore calls it—or, if you prefer Gartner's Hype Cycle terminology, it entered the trough of disillusionment. Stories turned negative, as did many business people's view of the technology.

"Internet of Things" has been a buzzword for several years now, and despite negative articles about hacking—see, for example, "Hackers once stole a casino's high-roller database through a thermometer in the lobby fish tank"—the IoT is still viewed positively.

So far, there have been few large-scale IoT projects (unless you consider RFID part of the IoT—which I do, but which many analysts and journalists do not). I conducted an online search for "major IoT projects" but came up with only a handful of specific examples, other than a couple of smart-city projects. So why is there still so much hype about the IoT and not about RFID?

The IoT might still go into the chasm and become viewed negatively, but I don't think that will be the case. I believe it has a number of things going for it that make it different from RFID and other new technologies. One major advantage is that we all use the Internet every day and derive tremendous benefits from doing so, so extending that to the objects around us seems like a huge positive… even if there are a few hacking incidents along the way.

Another reason IoT technologies are still seen in a positive light is that they are relatively easy to deploy (we've been connecting computers to the Internet for more than two decades) and don't involve a lot of business-process change. For example, if you put an IoT device inside a heating and ventilation unit you sell to customers, you simply need to set up software to monitor the data and alert someone if, say, the level of vibrations in the unit changes, which could indicate that maintenance is requried.

Passive RFID systems use weak radio waves that can be blocked or interfered with, and when poorly trained technicians with little knowledge of RFID systems install these, they tend not to work well. Failed projects end up being talked about, and the technology is viewed negatively.

Another thing that benefits IoT technologies is that the IoT has some very large companies pushing it. For each negative story an executive reads about IoT technologies, he or she might see half a dozen ads from Cisco, IBM and others portraying the IoT in a positive light. RFID, by contrast, has had almost no TV exposure (though IBM did run a few RFID ads before the technology went into the chasm).

RFID has suffered from a lack of leadership. No association has been out promoting the technology or combatting negative stereotypes. Large technology firms ran away from RFID as soon as it went into the chasm. They will come back as RFID adoption spreads, of course, but the fact that they have not been promoting the benefits of the technology has slowed RFID adoption.

The use of IoT technologies might, in some cases, supersede RFID adoption in some industries. Manufacturers might install sensors in factory machines before they tag all their parts, bins, raw materials and other things. But true digital transformation cannot be achieved until companies tag all of the physical assets within their facilities with RFID transponders—and the real value of the Internet of Things will not be realized until companies embrace 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 or the Editor's Note archive.