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12/13/2007
11:04 PM
John Soat
John Soat
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The Reverse Consumer Effect: RFID

Radio frequency ID technology was supposed to revolutionize the supply chain. Instead, it's moving into the mainstream, in the reverse of one of the most important technology trends of the last several years.

Radio frequency ID technology was supposed to revolutionize the supply chain. Instead, it's moving into the mainstream, in the reverse of one of the most important technology trends of the last several years.The consumer effect is when technologies popularized by consumers find their way into corporate use, like iPods or social networks. In a gradual about-face, RFID, which has been a corporate technology from its inception, is finding its way into the consumer market.

AT&T is responsible for helping to mainstream RFID, according to a news story by my colleague Elena Malykhina:

AT&T on Wednesday began providing radio-frequency identification and GPS-based products and services that schools can use to track students, assets, visitors, and their staff.

AT&T's RFID application is designed to work in conjunction with GPS-based mobile resource management services, as well as the carrier's wireless data network and hosted applications.

That's good news for RFID and its advocates, because the technology has been languishing in the corporate environment. Wal-Mart, RFID's most prominent proponent, has been forced to admit that its aggressive RFID plans have fallen short of the company's goals, at least so far. Maybe more exposure in the consumer market will help boost RFID's credibility as a business application.

There's still plenty to overcome on the consumer side of the equation, not the least of which is RFID's reputation as a potential invader of privacy. In September, California legislators passed a bill making it illegal to implant RFID chips in a human without his or her consent. Sen. Joe Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat who sponsored the bill, said this about RFID's potential:

RFID technology is not in and of itself the issue. RFID is a minor miracle, with all sorts of good uses. But we shouldn't condone forced "tagging" of humans. It's the ultimate invasion of privacy.

That's what makes this "reverse consumer effect" trend so intriguing. RFID has run into so much negative press, it didn't seem possible it would be accepted in the consumer market. At the same time, the corporate advantages of RFID have always seemed so obvious, the technology was considered a slam dunk on the business side.

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