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Conquering RFID reader incompatibility

In this week's column, Tim covers the HIMSS conference from Dallas where wireless solutions companies have set up shop to showcase their solutions prescriptions.

Conquering RFID reader incompatibility is just a first step in iAnywhere's plan to add some sense to remote sensing market

You know the drill. Want to increase your mobile productivity and return on investment? No problem, buy a thousand more handhelds and send them out interoffice mail. Poor WiFi coverage and reception? Call up your local rep, or pop on down to the local electronics store, and get a trunk-full of cheap wireless access points. That'll do the trick! Unfortunately, the companies that have elected to throw technology at a problem or application have quickly discovered that it is more effective and logical to spend more time developing the back-end infrastructure and software than the front office technology bling-bling.

Nowhere is this technology-pushing trend more apparent than in the quickly evolving field of RFID sensors and systems. Last year, we wrote about a conference that was very heavy on hardware and embarrassingly light on the data gathering software and intelligence required to make all of this stuff work with a minimum of people intervention (and isn't that essentially what it's all about anyway?).

Fortunately, the applications and solutions tides are turning to some extent, with the most influential ripples coming from the traditional data base and even synchronization software vendors who knew all along that it isn't just the technology 'meat', but the underlying infrastructure 'motion' that makes these systems rock (to paraphrase an old Carol King song..). The really astute vendors among this group also know that if you want to sell solutions, then you have to target specific applications and industry segments. This is why we turn our attention today to the Healthcare and Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference that kicks off in Dallas, TX today, where a lot of wireless solutions companies have set up shop in an attempt to peddle their solutions prescriptions.

'..if you purchase an RFID solution from a single vendor, then you expect you will not have a problem reading the information from their tags...although you run into some significant problems if you try to use readers and tags from different manufacturers and start bumping into conflicting standards. '

The solutions on display at HIMSS range from traditional 802.11 wireless access to hands-free VOIP solutions that seem like something out of a Star Trek screenplay. The stuff with real applications 'legs', however, is that involving RFID and embedded wireless, since this technology can be used for everything from tagging expensive medical equipment to tracking individual patients as they bounced from initial triage to operating room. We can rattle off some of the more well known players in this space, although we would like to talk about one that may not be so obvious. This company in XcelleNet, Inc., which last year was absorbed into iAnywhere Solutions, Inc. to become an inseparable part of that Sybase, Inc. subsidiary (

At HIMSS, crossovers from XcelleNet, as well as a healthy contingent from iAnywhere, unveiled RFID Anywhere, a development platform that can be used by IT people in a variety of industries to plan, deploy and manage RFID solutions. Specifically, these solutions include RFID readers and printers, and not necessarily the RFID devices themselves since the software is not designed to monitor the signals that are zapping about a wireless RF space. Rather, RFID Anywhere interacts directly with the readers on the network to manage the collection of data from all of these discrete and not-so-discrete sensors devices.

One thing that really raises the short hairs on our neck, especially after getting one of those really severe military cuts, is when a vendor or systems integrator talks more about technology and hardware than the applications and solutions behind it.

Tag troubles

As the iAnywhere folks put it, the RFID Anywhere platform insulates developers and integrators from low-level interfaces so they can focus on business logic." Hmm…we would have just said it relieves a really big programming headache, but we have always been a fan of oversimplification.

We talked to iAnywhere senior director of marketing and XcelleNet cross-over Steve Robb, and director of solutions services David Barrack, a week or so before the HIMSS show to get the skinny on RFID Anywhere. He told us the technology originated from the XcelleNet organization, where a bunch of forward-thinking individuals recognized the potential of RFID and machine-to-machine communications as a logical extension to the company's remote access technology and products. One of the first tasks, following the iAnywhere acquisition, was to hire an expert in that field who became iAnywhere's RFID chief architect. The result of his efforts is a product that is entirely different from the XcelleNet's core Afaria product, which specifically addresses the compatibility and interoperability issues challenging the RFID market.

The RFID Anywhere technology is built on Microsoft's .NET platform, and is compatible with most leading RFID reader technologies. These readers may be working wirelessly, although the iAnywhere product is not designed to monitor and manage the signals bouncing around in an RF space. What it does is eliminate the problem of incompatible RFID readers, which means a user does not have to spend a lot of money on a top-of-the-line multi-format reader to overcome the incompatibility problem. The RFID Anywhere platform pretty much makes that a non-issue, which may be bad news to makers of those over-priced readers and scanner guns.

This feature is important enough by itself for RFID Anywhere to be a success in the market. However, what really enthralls us is the potential for what this technology – as a development and RFID middleware platform – can accomplish down the road. Think of it: The technology eliminates reader compatibility problems and provides a programming framework to develop applications, or create extensions to existing back-end applications. What we would be doing, if we were on top of the iAnywhere executive heap, is talking to the top data base, ERP, customer relationship and other companies about providing an RFID programming extension to their applications for specific industry segments - like healthcare, oil and gas, and transportation. We would also be looking for opportunities outside the U.S., where RFID initiatives may be a bit ahead of the curve.

This is, of course, what iAnywhere is doing already. For example, the company is talking with a leading consumer goods company in Puerto Rico, and a produce supplier who is also one of the providers in the Wal-Mart food chain. Out advice is to accelerate the level of that activity to grow RFID Anywhere as an applications development platform as well as an RFID incompatibility-buster. It might even be worthwhile to position the platform a de facto standard of sorts, lending some stability to an area that can be precariously unstable if given half the chance.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to

Now, that may not sound like a big deal. After all, if you purchase an RFID solution from a single vendor, then you expect you will not have a problem reading the information from the tags. This is true, although you run into some significant problems if you try to use readers and tags from different manufacturers and start bumping into conflicting standards. What RFID Anywhere does is provide a bridge between those disparate readers and your information resource, theoretically eliminating the multiple standard road blocks – which is a huge problem in RFID and embedded wireless.

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