What the RFID Industry Can Learn From Steve Jobs

By Mark Roberti

Apple's success has been in making products that are easy to use.


Like millions of people worldwide, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Apple‘s co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs. I’m not someone who runs out and buys the latest and greatest Apple products, but I have been a loyal Mac user ever since I worked at a publication that installed Quadra 650s for all writers in 1991, and I currently have an iPhone (the second or third version).

News outlets around the world have been broadcasting or writing tributes to Jobs, so I won’t rehash all of his accomplishments here. Instead, I’ll focus on what the radio frequency identification industry can learn from him.

Much of what I heard on the news last week hailed Jobs as a visionary who transformed technology product categories, and even entire industries—music, for example. While Apple’s products have been enormously successful, and have forced changes in some industries (the music business was in the throes of change before the advent of the iPod and iTunes), I’ve never seen Jobs as a visionary. That is not to diminish his enormous contributions—but after launching the first personal computer with Steve Wozniak in 1976, he never achieved another first. There were MP3 players, smart phones and tablets before Apple jumped into those markets.

Rather, I view Jobs as someone who loved his customers (and we loved him back) enough to want to make products easy—even fun—to use. I owned a Blackberry for several years, and could never figure out how to use any aspect of it other than the phone and e-mail functions. After switching to an iPhone, I could now surf the Web, synch my contacts, download music and much more, without ever consulting a manual or getting frustrated.

As Apple’s CEO, Jobs had a singular—and somewhat prosaic—focus: improving the interface. Think about it. When MP3 players were cumbersome to use—people struggled to load songs into them, manage playlists and so forth—Apple developed the iPod with a simple click-wheel and screen interface, as well as iTunes to download songs into the iPod. As competitors began copying Apple’s click-wheel (anyone remember the Zune?), Apple improved the interface with the iPod Touch, which had a simple touchscreen.

Apple simplified the interface for smart phones in 2008, with the introduction of the iPhone. Last week, the company introduced the iPhone 4S. While many expected the new phone to include Near Field Communication (NFC) technology—a short-range type of RFID—it did not. Instead, the big upgrade was in the quality of the voice-recognition software. Jobs wanted the phone to be so easy to use that you could talk to it in plane English and have it respond.

The RFID industry, by contrast, has suffered from products that are difficult to configure and use. Five years ago, most companies would offer tags or readers and leave it up to end users to figure out how to create a system utilizing them. Things have definitely improved over the years, but reader interfaces are still often clunky, and sometimes require hours spent on the telephone with tech support. RFID systems need to be far easier to set up and utilize, even if they don’t need to be as elegant as consumer devices.

Anther thing RFID companies should learn from Jobs is that there needs to be a complete product. The iPod was successful not just because the hardware interface was easy to use, but also because there was a simple method for purchasing songs and adding them onto the device—namely, iTunes.

And both end users and RFID providers need to remember that RFID is a potential interface between people and technology. QR codes are great, but Jobs probably recognized their limitations immediately. A human being must open the phone’s camera application, point the camera at a QR code and snap a picture. With NFC technology, a user can simply wave a phone near an NFC tag and have the phone perform a function, such as visiting a Web site.

Just as the new iPhone can recognize voice commands and respond accordingly, RFID allows IT systems to recognize and respond to actions in the real world. Tags affixed to inventory can be read, and inventory systems can then be updated automatically. That already happens today—but what if a retail-store worker could ask an RFID system which items were out of stock? What if a factory-floor manager could ask where a particular tool was located? What if a company’s CEO could ask which products had not moved during the last week? And what if an RFID system could immediately reply to these requests?

Finally, I think someone could become the Steve Jobs of radio frequency identification. By that, I mean that Jobs focused on consumers, while Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and other technology leaders have focused primarily on the business market. At present, very few RFID technology providers are looking to the consumer market, which represents a huge opportunity.

In our special 2009 issue of RFID Journal magazine, RFID 2030, we imagined a world in which RFID enhanced education, simplified chores and put the fun back in travel. One day, for example, there will be smart homes in which people won’t lose their keys or TV remote control, and in which intelligent tools and appliances will help with laundry and food preparation. The entrepreneur who sees that opportunity will be someone like Jobs, with a passion for making products that are easy to use and make life better.

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.