Encouraging signs in several areas suggest that radio frequency identification (RFID) is moving beyond an over-hyped technology to one that is delivering real benefits and value to organizations.

Discussions at this month's CompTIA Breakaway 2006 conference, an annual gathering of senior IT industry executives, focused on the evolutionary changes that are underway in the RFID market. These changes include consolidation among product vendors and solution providers; greater availability of collaborative solutions and "off-the-shelf" commercial RFID packages; and improvement in RFID planning and implementation skills. Each of these factors should be welcomed by current and prospective users of the technology.

Consolidation among RFID product vendors and service providers will eliminate overlap, resulting in solutions that are better managed and more efficient. As RFID becomes more standardized, we're also likely to see greater emphasis on partnering and delivery of collaborative solutions.

One example of the industry's efforts to accelerate the adoption of RFID is the recent release by IBM of new resources aimed at developers. The free resources include software applications, technical articles, tutorials and application programming interfaces that allow developers to model RFID deployments. (For more information, please visit http://www.alphaworks.ibm.com/topics/rfid.)

More and more, developers are offering off-the-shelf software packages that are, by their commercial nature, typically available at a price lower than their customized counterparts.

Finally, companies today have more experience with RFID deployments, which leads to better planning, less waste and lower total cost of implementation.

Manufacturing and supply chain applications are at the forefront of current RFID adoption, driven in large part by mandates from customers. Some estimates suggest as many as 100,000 U.S. companies are under some form of RFID-adoption mandate.

Increasingly, however, there is growing interest in using RFID in areas such as shop floor applications and asset tracking. The automotive, electronics and perishable food markets are among the most aggressive verticals deploying these solutions.

The apparel and pharmaceutical industries are at the forefront of moving beyond carton/case/pallet RFID tagging to item-level tagging.

In fact, U.K.-research firm IDTechEx this month forecast that item-level RFID tagging will grow from $160 million in 2006 to $13 billion in 2016. In 2006, 200 million items will be RFID-tagged in the world. By 2016, 550 billion items may be RFID tagged, according to IDTechEx projections.

A word of caution: RFID is not a plug-and-play technology. Each deployment is unique; and within each deployment, any number of variables can affect success or failure. Consider this fact: Every reader or interrogator adds another device to the organization's overall enterprise network. As information is collected and transmitted from various locations around the physical facility, data must be processed and incorporated into existing and new databases.

Yet despite the challenges RFID poses, a significant number of organizations are interested in supplying RFID products and services.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) found high interest among technology resellers, solution providers, system integrators and consultants to offer RFID services and solutions. The large majority -- 84% -- said they currently offer or intend to offer hardware installation and maintenance services. Another 73% were focused (or intended to focus) on RFID software implementations.

However, when asked about their experience level in implementing RFID solutions 44% of the companies had investigated RFID but had not implemented any projects; 34% had no experience and had not done any investigations; and just 15% had implemented one or more RFID projects.

Customers looking for assistance with an RFID deployment would be wise to seek out a solution provider with specific vertical marker expertise that's relevant to the customer's business. These solution providers have demonstrated that they understand the specific market, which gives them an advantage over competitors who are new to that market.

Another indicator: Look for solution providers with experience deploying wireless networking technologies in enterprise situations. Knowledge and experience with data storage requirements is another plus.

Expect the unexpected when it comes to RFID deployment, because unpredictable variables can occur at any stage of the deployment. But however imperfect RFID may be, it's not going away. The more experienced, trained and certified your RFID team, the better they will be able to overcome any challenges.

David Sommer is vice president, E-Business and software solutions for The Computing Technology Industry Association, a trade association representing the business interests of the global information technology industry. He is responsible for developing and implementing worldwide initiatives by working with IT leaders to develop and promote collaboratively defined business and technology standards for business-to-business transactions in the computing and electronics industries. www.comptia.org

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