Open source will solve RFID's image problem

By using open standards and licensing, small businesses could have more input into the development of the radio-tagging technology.

The public image of RFID (radio frequency identification) as a secretive tool of big business and government could improve if open source groups get involved in developing RFID standards, according to one U.K. charity.

Dr Humberto Moran, chief executive of Open Source Innovation, a software charity based in the United Kingdom, said that opponents of RFID would be reassured if the software and standards associated with RFID were created, where possible, under open licenses.

Open standards and software would allow for greater transparency and help diffuse the "Orwellian" reputation that radio tags and the associated tracking technology have attracted, Moran said.

"What has been happening is that privacy issues have created an unfair picture of RFID, but we think exactly the opposite--it can improve lifestyle and has environmental benefits. The OSI will show the good face of RFID and having open source software will allow consumers to find out more information about the technology and interact with it more effectively," Moran told the RFID Futures event in London.

The OSI has been around for just over one year and is focused on "promoting the research, development and spreading of software with significant social impact". The group recently secured a £1m (US$1.7 million) grant from the DTI for the development of open source software for RFID.

Moran told RFID Futures that open source would be extremely important in the current struggle to agree industry-wide standards for RFID software.

The OSI recently formed a consortium of large organizations to create EPCglobal compliant open source software for commercial environments--the group hopes to release the software in the next two years. EPCglobal is the body charged with developing RFID standards.

Large vendors, such as Microsoft, are keen that their platform becomes the de-facto software standard for RFID but Moran claimed that greater use of open source was much more likely to lead to the commoditization and transparency needed to make the technology take-off.

"The value of RFID is maximized by compatibility--the industry is crying out for standards," said Moran. EPCglobal faces a tough struggle to manage the various large IT vendors that hope their software will become an integral part of any future RFID standards, he claimed.

"EPCglobal is leading that process but the process is fragile. If one software vendor manages to set standards they stand to reap huge profits. EPCglobal has been suffering from this tension," he said.

Free and open standards would also help smaller IT companies develop RFID technology--a process that is currently dominated by large companies, he added. "Whilst current RFID revolution is led by big companies, SMEs will not be able to compete."

However Moran insists that OSI is not interested in competing with large software companies such as Microsoft and IBM. "The idea is to complement rather than compete with vendors. We don't plan on being a solution for integrating RFID with an ERP system. We are aiming at tools for smaller companies."

According to OSI figures, around 75 percent of the costs associated with RFID projects come from software. By making more of the software available under an open source license, the technology would become more affordable to smaller companies. "The RFID mandate of some big retailers seems unrealistic. Tesco and Wal-Mart asking suppliers to adopt the technology, for instance, is very difficult as some suppliers may not be able to afford it," Moran said.

Wal-Mart set a deadline of January 2005 for its top 100 suppliers to achieve pallet-and-case-level RFID tagging, with the overall aim to have all of its US suppliers on board by 2006.