Posted by Lori Ayre on November 29, 2004

At the California Library Association's Annual Conference, I moderated a panel of RFID vendors entitled "The Vendors Answer the Tough Questions."

The format was a pointed Q&A by me followed by some questions from the audience. In anticipation of the questions I posed to the panel members, I had sent each panelist the same set of questions and told them that, based on their responses, I would be picking who the respondent for that question would be.

In other words, they had to provide their response to my questions ahead of time and not everyone would get a chance to respond to each question.

Soooo, the first interesting thing to note was who appeared on the panel and who didn't. The reason this is interesting is because TechLogic basically chickened out. I am informed and believe (

Companies on the panel included the following:

3M - Rebekeh Anderson
Integrated Technology Group (ITG) - Ron Birchard
Library Automation Technologies (LAT) - Oleg Boyarsky
Tagsys - Charles Boyer
Bibliotheca - Emmet Erwin
VTLS - Dan Denault
Checkpoint - Doug Karp
Libramation - Frank Mussche

Dan Denault and Ron Birchard tackled the question "What kind of ROI can I expect from my RFID implementation -- when will it have paid for itself?" They pointed out that the data isn't really out there yet but that 3-4 years was looking reasonable. They talked about the passive savings (I think that was the term) resulting from keeping the staff the same size while increasing circulation. Arguing that the savings is in not having to increase your staff as you do more work.

Becky Anderson and Charles Boyer addressed the question of "what happens when the next generation tag comes out and I've already tagged my collection with last generation tags?" Again, both vendors agreed that their company would always support the last generation tags so the new technology would support the old. No problems there. Ah, but what if you want the technology perks associated with the new tags such as better privacy control? Well, that didn't come up and since this wasn't a debate, I left that one alone.

Things got interesting when Frank Mussche and Oleg Boyarsky responded to the question "How is your company responding to the privacy concerns raised by RFID use?" Basically, Mussche suggested the concerns were overblown and that the only way of 'eavesdropping' on the tags would require the eavesdropper to carry some big reader with a huge antenna. The idea being that you'd draw so much attention to yourself that no one could do it surreptitiously. Boyarsky, on the other hand, felt the concerns that had been raised needed to be addressed by vendors and that was why he had been working with some of the people raising those concerns such as David Molnar (the UC Berkeley RFID engineer). His company claims to have a safer product (privacy-wise) than the others.

Emmett Erwin and Doug Karp were asked about the ISO standard with which all the vendors had claimed to be compliant (ISO 15693). My question was this...if all the vendors are compliant, then shouldn't that mean I could use one company's tag and another company's reader. In other words, I shouldn't be locked into an "RFID Solution" from just one vendor. Right? Wrong. They explained that there was much more to interoperability than standards compliance. Karp explained that the ISO standard only applies to data communication. But there was much more to communicating between readers and ILSs than data communication. There is a whole data model that differs from company to company which results in tag and reader not necessarily playing nice together across companies.

There were some other questions asked and answered that the vendors didn't agree upon such as the viability of using RFID only for security purposes, the desireability of having the publishers place tags on their books before shipping them out, the availability (or lack) of documentation on the health effects of exposure to the RFID radio signal, the availability (or lack) of information about the reduction of RSI injuries to library workers switching over to RFID systems. Unfortunately, I don't remember exactly who said what so I can't report more specifics.

In closing the panel, I decided to ask what seemed to be to be the obvious question: why would ANYONE get into RFID at this stage?

I asked this question because throughout the discussion, it became clear that the technology is so new that many of those "tough questions" couldn't be answered authoritatively.

  • Standards are still being developed (data communication)
  • Some standards (data model) haven't even BEGUN to be developed
  • Health effects (radio exposure, RSI) studies haven't been done
  • The ROI isn't documented
  • The cost is very high to get started and once you commit to a vendor (at this point), you are really committed to the vendor

I'll leave it to each vendor to make their pitch to you about why now is the time. Suffice to say, I'm not convinced it is time to leap in just yet.