Feds, Wal-Mart Push Immature Tech

As the feds and Wal-Mart call for the quick adoption of digital television and radio frequency identification, respectively, suppliers are pouring out resources to test and implement admittedly immature technologies.

I have some great news. You see, theres this brand-new technology out there that is just going to be great for me. With this technology working for me, Ill be more efficient, and, best of all, Ill be able to save and make more money.

There is one little catch. To get the full benefit of this technology, Ill need all of my readers to start using it. And while this technology is beneficial to me, it doesnt really offer that many benefits to you. Also, youll need to spend a considerable amount of time, money and personnel resources to test and implement this admittedly immature technology.

Oh, yeah—one other thing. There are groups of people out there who dont like this technology, people who have some strange idea that it will invade their privacy or make them spend money on things they dont need or want. These people will really be unhappy with those who use this technology, but I have a feeling that a lot of that anger will get passed to you rather than to me.

To make sure I get this technology, Im going to set a deadline, and any readers who are unable to implement the technology within this deadline will no longer be able to read this column.

OK, I know what youre going to ask: "Jim, how can you do this? Who do you think you are—God?" To which I say, "Of course not. God would never do something like this."

But the federal government and, even more impressively, Wal-Mart, have followed this exact strategy. Though I have to say that both have run into quite a few problems in trying to force a not-ready-for-prime-time technology into fruition.

For the government, the big goal has been to move everyone to digital television by next year. Theyve sold this by touting the improved picture and options that digital will give consumers (over broadcast, not cable or satellite). But the real reason the government wants this to happen is so it can get rid of all those pesky broadcast signals and sell all of that public airspace for a nice, tidy sum.

The problem has been that not many other groups have shared the governments enthusiasm. Broadcast stations need to spend millions to offer services that their viewers have expressed no interest in having. TV manufacturers need to put digital equipment in TVs that dont benefit from it. And viewers are faced with buying equipment they dont need or want.

Earlier, I said that God wouldnt do these things. But when it comes to retail suppliers, Wal-Mart is God. And when Wal-Mart decreed that all suppliers would use RFID tags on their products, the suppliers had no choice but to follow the will of Wal-Mart.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about Wal-Marts RFID pilot.

But following the decree can entail trials and suffering for these suppliers. As a recent article in Baseline magazine showed, many have had a hard time getting around the limitations of the immature RFID technology, with problems ranging from, at best, 50 percent read rates to tags not surviving fast conveyor belts.

Also, a tool shown at the recent Black Hat conference displayed how it would be possible to change or erase the product information on RFID tags. This development could force many to wait for newer, more secure—and more expensive—RFID tags. Or they might have to move to read-only tags, which will anger privacy advocates as the tags will no longer be easily erasable.

These are serious problems, and for most companies, they would be disastrous. They are enough to make any company think twice before jumping into an immature technology, especially one that wont benefit everyone equally, even if it means making an important customer unhappy.

But while these problems would be enough to stop most, they are only minor annoyances to powerful entities such as the government or Wal-Mart. To get its broadband bounty in hand, the federal government is looking into possibly emulating the city of Berlin and simply switching off analog signals and forcing the change to digital. And no matter how bad the problems are for Wal-Marts suppliers, they have little to worry about, since what Wal-Mart wants, Wal-Mart gets.

I now realize that I cant force these changes on you, my readers, so it looks like Ill never get the benefits of that great technology. Unlike Wal-Mart and the government, I dont have the power to force others to do my will. And it really makes me jealous that I dont have that power.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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