For years, RFID proponents have pointed to item-level tagging as the Holy Grail, the ultimate payoff when all of the RFID pieces fell into place.
Thats when full ROI would happen, out-of-stocks would become an age-old memory and smartcarts would become what the Jetsons had always intended.
As the industry joke went, the timetable for true item-level tagging would be five years away. It didnt matter what year the prediction was being made. It would always be five years away, usually pinned to a five-cent-a-tag.
That stopped recently when tag prices got close enough that five cent tags were no longer five years away.
The second Holy Grail has been sophisticated use of active tags, to track temperature or altitude or perhaps what radio station the truck driver was listening to.
The CIO of 7-Eleven gave a great example of this, discussing how RFID tags could be used to insure fresher milk.
Consider that when you look at this weeks news from the IEEE that it was preparing a major alternative to RFID dubbed RuBee or—in IEEEs colorful language—1902.1. (I think when the Borg named their drones, they followed IEEE naming protocols.)
On one level, RuBee addresses the two most striking challenges with todays RFID deployments: the lack of practical roadmaps to both cost-effective item-level tagging and creative and pragmatic uses of active tags to capture environmental data.
But a potentially more interesting rationale lies in the middle of the politics of standards groups and of corporate bureaucracies.
The typical large corporation today has a culture that often undermines its efforts to do the right thing technologically.
Lets take a hypothetical example. Fortune 500 CIO Smith decides to vigorously pursue—on the companys tab—Technology Initiative Alpha.
Its 14 months later and its clear that Alpha isnt working. The honest thing to do is for the CIO to go the CEO and the board and say, "Turns out that Alpha wasnt a good idea. Lets pull the plug and move on and stop wasting our money."
But in corporate America, thats suicidal. Its admitting that you made a terrible decision and wasted the companys money. CIOs have been fired for much less. The structure places huge pressure on the CIO to pour more into Project Alpha, hoping against hope that more funding will either turn it around or at least keep it limping along until the CIO can either get promoted or get another job.
For many companies, full-fledged RFID has become their Project Alpha. Its hobbling along, doing some interesting things, but its not getting closer to delivering on the big promises that were made when the company started funding it.
CIOs need an excuse to be able to explore alternatives without admitting failure. Hello, RuBee, you beautiful gem of an excuse to explore alternatives to RFID without losing face—or job.
There is an intriguing comment in the news story about RuBee, where legendary RFID analyst Pete Abell—now with IDCs Manufacturing Insights—talked of how HF RFID has been "forced upon [RFID standards group] EPC Global" against the wills of both Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense.
"They were both hoping that UHF Gen2 would work for everything. Nobody wants to replace whats already been done. The HF announcement is critical background to understand that there already was a crack in the armor."
The EPC Global decision meant that both Wal-Mart and the Defense Department "are faced with the prospect of redoing their infrastructure. This opens up the options to considering something very different" such as RuBee, Abell said.
In other words, companies now have an excuse to open up this surgical patient again so they can casually remove the sponge they left inside.
Some industry speculation has questioned whether the reassigning of Wal-Mart CIO Linda Dillman in April had indeed been prepping her for greater things or if it was an acknowledgement that her support for RFID might have been a tad too aggressive and enthusiastic.
Even her successors statement reaffirming the retail giants support for RFID did little to quell such rumors.
Not all companies have been waiting for an RFID excuse, of course. Procter & Gamble has been getting very creative about ways to expand its definition of supply chain, moving beyond the distribution centers and backrooms and focusing in on showrooms, aisles, promotional displays and ultimately store shelves, smartcarts and POS.
Retail technology blog StorefrontBacktalk looked at how P&G cleverly proved ROI on a promotional campaign using RFID.
But Wal-Mart and P&G are not the norm. Then again, neither is a fully-functioning RFID program. RuBee may not fix that, but it at least gives CIOs a face-saving shot at making some needed repairs.
Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internets Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.