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IBM expands efforts to promote RFID

CNET News | June 14, 2005
By Barnaby J. Feder

Many giants of the computing world, like Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and Sun Microsystems, have been vying to gain recognition as technology leaders in the drive to use radio tags to identify consumer goods. None has been more aggressive than IBM, which plans to start yet another marketing salvo Tuesday.

The company's consulting practice, IBM Global Services, plans to announce that its consultants will begin selling advice on consumer privacy issues related to the use of radio identification tagging of consumer goods.

IBM's software division also plans to introduce a 'starter kit' of programs intended to help clients more quickly develop ways to link data generated by radio scanners into existing corporate software packages that manage functions like order entry, shipping and inventory controls. IBM's printing devices unit expects to announce plans to market a bar code printer and radio tag dispenser that checks the tags to make sure they are working before applying them to a product.

Each product addresses potential bottlenecks in the spread of the technology, called radio frequency identification, or RFID.

The build-up in IBM's radio tag portfolio is part of a $250m (£139m) investment in sensor technology announced last autumn.

RFID proponents say such tags will one day save businesses billions and make shopping more convenient for consumers by helping keep better track of products in supply chains, warehouses and stores. Radio tags store far more data about a product than bar codes and can be read more quickly, without human intervention.

Giant retailers like Wal-Mart Stores and US government agencies like the Defense Department have been pushing manufacturers to adopt the technology rapidly and widely. At the same time, some consumer groups have expressed concern that the tags could be used to build databases that track individual behaviour.

Major computer companies view the intricacies of storing, managing and analysing the flood of data the tags could produce as a significant new business opportunity. How fast that opportunity could develop is in question, however.

So far, the rollout has been hampered by spotty hardware performance and the reluctance of manufacturers and retailers to invest heavily until worldwide standards have been established. Many early adopters are also struggling to match the RFID data to existing corporate data systems, a necessity if the data is to be used to adjust shipping schedules or other business practices to save money.

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