RFID: Evolving Into an Enterprise Solution

New RFID innovations may open the door to broader-based RFID solutions in the retail and business sectors.

It's a tempting pit into which to throw oneself. We've all felt our minds tugged towards it, and most of us at least once have jumped at it headlong. We've all been tempted at some point in the past two years to begin a speech, an article, even a simple observation about security with the allusion that the September 11 terrorist attacks are responsible for all recent changes in this industry. The connection is so clear-cut that most of us don't even stop to consider such comments anymore, two years later. Perhaps we should.

Now before you brand me treacherous or insensitive, please understand I don't intend to degrade the significance of the event in business, political or cultural terms. September 11 of course marked a major shift in America's perception of security risk and tolerance of security enhancements. It also increased spending in a few narrow sectors and fostered development of some new products, notably in bio/chem protection. But most of today's rising technologies—digital video and recording, advanced transmission methods and wireless applications, to name a few—were beginning their ascent before September of 2001, and some of those have enjoyed little sales or development boost from the homeland security craze.

The point is, it's important not only to recognize but also to plainly acknowledge and even emphasize that security was evolving and was meaningful before our national tragedy occurred. Tolerance for and interest in security measures due to war and terror in this country are already quickly on the wane. If we don't make this distinction now—if security doesn't begin to stand on its own two feet again and stop leaning rhetorically on a cultural soft spot—what will happen to public perception of security when 2001 is five years past, or 10, or 15? Will we allow it to fade back into the depths of minds more interested in reality TV, chain e-mails, and getting to work on time?

In the hope of staving off that eventuality, I begin the meat of this article with the assertion that homeland security is only one of many factors that have combined to make one particular technology—radio frequency identification—an enterprise-wide solution. RFID technology now pervades our everyday lives, so much so that it frequently goes unnoticed. Since its turn-of-the-century beginnings, we've used it as a theft deterrent in retail establishments and a method of hands-free identification at sensitive facilities. In the past several years it has frequently begun to appear in less familiar areas as well, such as vehicle access and cargo/ supply chain management. New products abound, making it possible to use RFID across the spectrum in the retail and business sectors.

A Short History of RFID
Gugliemo Marconi's difficult but successful radiotelegraphic transmission of a single Morse Code letter from the UK to Newfoundland in 1901 quickened the development of an already burgeoning theory on radio transmission. Only 20 years later, broadcast radio was becoming regular entertainment in the average American household. As the study of radio and electromagnetic waves continued, it was discovered that they were handy for more than communication. Radar technology used radio waves in locating devices, determining the speed and positions of objects by analyzing the waves' reflection patterns. The technology came into its own during World War II, when it was considered an indispensable asset to the Allies. RFID, which combines the qualities of radio transmission and radar, underwent theoretical and experimental development for the next two decades, then jumped into the market in the 1970s.

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