Why RFID Vendors and Users Speak Different Languages

By Mark Roberti

Vendors look at RFID from an engineering perspective, which often confuses end users who are trying to figure out what RFID does and how it can be used to improve the way they do business.

I've been working on a special report that aims to explain all the different types of radio frequency identification systems, and to put them in a context that will help end users better understand the different "flavors" of the technology, so that they can choose the type that will work best for their particular applications. I was doing a little research on RuBee, a form of RFID that uses sophisticated devices that communicate with each other, when I came across this sentence on Wikipedia: "RuBee is often confused with radio frequency identification...RFID protocols use what is known as backscattered transmission mode...In contrast, RuBee is similar to Wi-Fi and ZigBee in that it is peer-to-peer, and is a networked transceiver that actually transmits a data signal on demand."

So RuBee, which uses radio waves to remotely identify objects or people, is not RFID because it uses a different communications method. A few years ago, the CEO of a company selling RuBee-based systems told me RuBee was not RFID because the tags have an onboard CPU and can dynamically change their own IP addresses.

The situation is equally confusing to end users when academics or RFID industry professionals discuss "wireless sensor networks." This term is hopelessly vague to end users (as is the even more vague term "sensor networks"). It's not clear to end users if the sensors are monitoring specific things, or just general environmental conditions. And it's not clear to them how these sensors are different from active RFID tags and battery-assisted RFID tags that also support sensors (the only real difference is that RFID sensors communicate with a reader or readers, whereas wireless sensor networks have tags that communicate with each other).

I know there are some end users, even on the business side, who are technology enthusiasts and understand all of this. But most end users are confused by it—and it's our fault as an industry.

My view of RFID has been clear and consistent from the day I launched RFID Journal: If a device or system's main purpose is to identify an object remotely, it is RFID—regardless of any technical specifications. If a sensor is wireless but does not communicate an ID—it just tells you if it's hot or cold—then it's not RFID. And if an ID is a critical component—it tells you which specific item or location is hot or cold—then it's RFID.

The reality is that most end users don't know—or care—how a tag or sensor communicates, whether it has an onboard CPU and so forth. What they care about is what RFID does: Can it solve their problem?

I know some people will say end users don't care whether or not it's radio frequency identification, and some have the perception that the technology is bad or doesn't work, so they believe the term "RFID" should be jettisoned altogether. I don't advocate selling RFID solutions—I advocate selling solutions to people's specific problems. But it's important to have credibility when you claim you can solve a problem, and that means explaining, at some point, how you will do so. Not talking about RFID is like trying to sell someone an e-commerce solution in 1995 without talking about the Internet.

The other concern I have about jettisoning the term RFID just because it has negative connotations in some quarters is that doing so would make it more difficult for end users with problems to locate vendors not identified with RFID. If someone at a factory was having trouble tracking assets, they could search the Web and learn that RFID is being used for tracking assets. But upon searching for "RFID companies," they would find only those that identified themselves as such, so an end user might not locate the company with the right solution.

As an industry, we need to do a better job of explaining what RFID is, and of making it clear that there are many different types (30 are included in our report). They all do the same thing—identify objects remotely so they can be tracked and managed more efficiently (or charged, in the case of transactions)—but you have to choose the proper system for your particular application. Every vendor would be better off, because potential customers would have a much clearer idea of how RFID could solve their problems.

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 click here.