Oracle, IBM Spar over Sensors

Like IBM, Oracle has launched a special arm to handle both RFID and other sensors. But Oracle's lower-profile approach to the technology is quite distinct from IBM's new $250 million division. And other huge vendors such as HP, Sun and SAP are also making

Not to be outdone by IBMs colorful new $250 million sensor arm, Oracle is somewhat discreetly at work on a new Sensor-Based Services initiative.

Like IBMs effort, Oracle Corp.s program rolls together RFID with other sorts of sensors. Hewlett-Packard Co., Sun Microsystems Inc., SAP AG and other big vendors are also collaborating with users and partners on non-RFID sensors, designed to measure temperature, read utility meters and perform a variety of other tasks with little or no human help.

Oracle actually launched Sensor-Based Services at the end of March, about six months before IBMs September unveiling of Sensor & Actuator (S&A) Solutions, a major IBM division expected to ultimately employ 1,000 people.

What is Oracles Sensor-Based Services? Its a program office at Oracle that coordinates the sensor-related activities of thousands of Oracle workers. Allyson Fryhoff, vice president of Oracle Sensor-Based Services, and her smallish team of staffers interface to a steering committee and working groups that delve into everything from sensor-oriented product architecture to deployment and marketing.

"What were doing is cross-functional and global. When RFID and other sensors are in place, therell be a lot more data to deal with, so you need to think now about what youll be doing with it," Fryhoff said in an interview with

Although Oracles effort isnt as highly funded as IBMs, it does seem imminently achievable, in the opinion of some analysts.

"Oracles strategy isnt some huge $250 million dollar deal. But its fairly straightforward, and it should be relatively easy to do," said Jeff Woods, an analyst at GartnerGroup.

Not surprisingly, IBM isnt all that impressed with archrival Oracles approach to sensors. John Charlson, an IBM spokesperson, pointed to differences between IBM and Oracle in the areas of "investment, business partnerships, end-to-end solutions and open standards-based software."

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about IBMs $250 million investment in RFID technology.

"IBM will take advantage of existing customer and partner relationships with chip manufacturers, device makers and ISVs. Unlike Oracle, IBM does not compete with application vendor partners," Charlson said.

Meanwhile, almost everyone agrees that, although potentially promising, the sensor market is still emerging. Temperature sensors arent always that accurate, Wood said. GPS (Global Positioning System)—a sensor technology that uses satellite beams to gauge location—is an interesting technology, but one that hasnt really "taken off" yet, according to the Gartner analyst.

Other analysts cite big differences between RFID—a wireless package, pallet and item-tracking system driven by industry mandates from retailers and the U.S. Department of Defense—and markets for other types of sensors. These other markets are tending to grow more slowly, through vendor solutions built to the highly specific application needs of individual customers.

"RFID is really the first iteration of the intelligent network," according to Erik Michaelson, an analyst at ABI Research.

But vendor rivalries now bubbling up in RFID will someday spill over into the overall sensor market, he said. "Theres definitely competition brewing, and each vendor will play to its own traditional strong suits," Michaelson told

Aside from Oracle and IBM. other big vendors currently dabbling in non-RFID sensors havent announced formal, overreaching "sensor" programs,

But HP, Sun, SAP and other vendors all say theyre working with customers and/or partners on sensors beyond the RFID variety.

HP, for example, is collaborating on temperature sensor applications with pharmaceutical and biotechnical customers, said Dayna Fried, an HP RFID spokesperson.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to learn about making RFID work for the pharmaceutical industry.

Sun has built a sensor-based ship control system with the U.S. Navy, as well as a building temperature control system with Johnson Controls, said Vijay Sirathay, group marketing manager for RFID at Sun.

SAP is focusing mostly on RFID right now, but its also been certifying a wide range of outside sensor maker partners for SAP compliance, according to Bill Wohl, an SAP representative.

Next Page: Tiny sensors, big possibilities.