What Does a Whole RFID Product Look Like?

By Mark Roberti

It would be unobtrusive and easier to deploy, and would deliver information about the approximate locations of tagged goods.


I’ve often said (and written in this column) that radio frequency identification technology will not reach mass adoption until solution providers deliver a “whole product”—Geoffrey Moore’s term for a new technology augmented with everything necessary for customers to have a compelling reason to invest in it. That raises a question: What does a whole product look like?

In my view, a whole product would include readers, software applications that turn data into information from which businesses can benefit, and possibly tags (I say possibly because with passive ultrahigh-frequency systems, tags would simply be a commodity). It’s unlikely that a single company will ever provide tags, readers and software, and that we will see a triumvirate deliver the whole product. This is similar to the personal computer industry, in which Intel provided the processor, IBM made the personal computer and Microsoft supplied the operating system and some core software applications.

The RFID industry is clearly moving in this direction, and I see this as the last step in the maturation process before passive UHF RFID really takes off. But I think that the industry needs to do a bit more than just offer tags, readers and software through a partnership. The technology must become easier and simpler to deploy and use.

Think about MP3 players. In the beginning, you needed a CD-ROM drive to get your songs off a music CD. You needed software for managing your songs, software for writing songs to your MP3 player and the MP3 player itself. The whole solution wasn’t just to bundle these elements together and say, “Here, use it.” Apple made a whole product that was easy to use—you would put your CD-ROM in the drive and your Mac would ask if you wanted to copy the songs to your library. You could quickly create playlists in iTunes and easily copy them to you iPod, and the iPod itself was simple and easy to use.

Today, there are many factors that influence tag reads, such as the material on which tags are placed, the presence of metal, water or electromagnetic inference in the environment, and so forth. The industry has been working hard to develop better products to overcome these issues, and we’ve certainly come a long way. But installing systems and enabling them to read hundreds of tags passing through a portal can still require a skilled technician to achieve high read rates.

There’s no doubt that RFID systems currently deliver a great deal of value, and that the technology has been solving a lot of problems that no other technology can address. But before it can be used to track all products through the supply chain and in stores, systems need to be more plug-and-play. Perhaps that means creating readers that are self-configuring, or that provide feedback to enable non-technicians to adjust antenna angles and power levels.

I also think that a whole product needs to provide more information regarding the locations of tagged assets. It’s easy to determine where a tagged product or container is located if it has been read while passing through a portal, and as it sits in an RFID-enabled cabinet or on a shelf containing a shelf reader. But when RFID is used throughout a warehouse or store, all tags might be responding all the time. How do you find an item without a handheld reader?

Another issue is, for lack of a better word, the clutter that RFID creates. The ideal solution would be invisible. Instead of bulky active tags on hospital equipment, tags would be built into the equipment. Instead of readers with multiple antennas around dock doors and in stores, readers would become part of the environment, almost unnoticeable.

Solution providers are aware of these issues. Companies are developing overhead readers that are easier to install, provide the approximate locations of tagged items and deliver data to back-end systems. We now have nice-looking, low-profile antennas that are unobtrusive, and solution providers are developing the whole product, either alone or with partners. In my view, it is only a matter of time before these advances coalesce into a whole product that the market will embrace in a big way.

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.