A new product and a joint announcement with Microsoft are the latest signs that mobile computing specialist Symbol Technologies Inc. is focusing more attention on radio-frequency identification this year.
Symbol on Monday rolled out the XR400, the latest in a series of devices for reading and processing the RFID “tags,” or labels, that customers affix to cartons, pallets and individual items for product-tracking purposes.
On Tuesday at Microsoft Corp.s Tech Ed show, Paul Flessner, Microsofts senior vice president of server applications, outlined a strategy of using the companys .Net Framework, SQL Server database and Visual Studio .Net development tools to reduce the cost and complexity of RFID integration and management.
The next day at the same conference in Orlando, Fla., Symbol announced plans to support Microsofts RFID infrastructure by running Microsoft middleware on the XR400.
But in subsequent announcements, John Bruno, Symbols new RFID Division head, said the company will add support for the RFID middleware of other software vendors, as well.
Symbol is also eyeing new technology innovations in the areas of antennae and tag design, Bruno said, during an interview this week with eWEEK.com.
Known mainly for its wireless, mobile device and bar code technologies, Symbol has expanded into new markets with the acquisitions of RFID tag specialist Matrics Inc. and software maker Covigo Inc.
In the RFID market, Symbol faces competition from a number of other players, ranging from tag makers such as Alien Technology Corp. and Intermec Technologies Corp., to device makers such as Psion Teklogix Corp. and integrators like Manhattan Associates Inc.
“Symbols capabilities in sales and marketing certainly lit Matrics fire. Matrics saw the opportunity in the merger. Symbol can also draw on [Matrics] partnerships with companies like [portable-printer maker] Zebra, and the company is working to create better channel relationships,” said Erik Michielsen, an analyst at ABI Research.
“But Symbol will not run away with this market,” Michielsen said. “Symbol is well situated with the Fortune 500 from a solutions perspective, for example, but so are Intermec and Psion Teklogix.”
Unlike bar code scanning, RFID can collect data about objects without direct line-of-sight connectivity between the scanned object and the reader device, he added.
But Symbols Bruno also acknowledged some remaining barriers to wide RFID adoption, including pricing, accuracy and overall customer acceptance.
“Our pricing is now at 20 to 40 cents per tag, as are our competitors [prices]. For RFID to get to a more ubiquitous place, [pricing] needs to get closer to 10 cents a tag. But look where it was a year ago—at 80 cents, 90 cents, $1.00 a tag!”
Bruno also argued that acceptance will grow as customers glean a clearer understanding of how RFID can help automate their supply chains.
Symbols new XR400 reader is a “fixed,” or stationery, RFID reader, aimed at streamlining RFID management and widening the scope of applications by allowing more of the processing to be done on the device itself, rather than the server. Symbol also produces mobile readers.
Up to now, Symbols RFID readers have contained enough processing power to read and buffer RFID tags, said Alan Melling, Symbols senior director of EPC Solutions, during another interview.
“You could read thousands of tags. But now, you can do more than just [buffer tags]. You can process them as business events,” Melling said.
Unlike Symbols existing AR400 RFID fixed reader, the XR400 provides standard ports, for easier connectivity with third-party hardware devices. USB host support is included. The XR400 is also Symbols first “multimodal” reader, supporting newer “Gen 2” RFID tags along with existing Type 0 and Type 1 tags.
Symbols RFID technology is already being commercially deployed in baggage handling applications at Hong Kong Airport, as well as at McCarron International Airport in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Symbol is testing the use of RFID for handling passenger traffic with several different U.S. government agencies. Health care and pharmaceuticals are other emerging application areas, he said.
For his part, Symbols Melling said, he believes the increased processing power in the XR400 will help fend off the prospect that enterprise computer systems will become inundated by too much data when RFID deployments enter full swing.
Instead of sending data from all tags to the server, readers will be able to send only those tags that have been specially selected, once the right applications have been written, Melling said.
Bruno said that Symbol is also looking at helping to drive down costs and upgrade accuracy through further technological improvements to RFID. Possibilities under consideration run the gamut from redesigned antennae to the use of new materials—instead of the customary paper or cardboard—as tag substrates, particularly in liquid and metallic environments, where RFID accuracy is particularly low.