Hard Times Promote Innovation: RFID's Road to Mainstream

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The bar code was patented in 1952 but not used widely until the tumultuous '70s. Does radio-frequency ID require a similar kickstart?

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The New York Times obituary for Alan Haberman, the Massachusetts supermarket executive who led the industry's successful movement to implement uniform bar codes, makes an interesting point. The technology was patented in 1952, but widespread use was delayed not only because of the limits of hardware and software, but because there was no standardization. Some countries have powerful independent standards organizations, like Germany's Deutsches Institut für Normung [DIN], but the U.S. relies on industry committees. What finally galvanized American retailers and manufacturers, united by Haberman? The 1970s economy:

[A]mid rising inflation, supermarkets wanted to cut labor costs by automating the ways their wares were stocked, inventoried and rung up. A committee of executives was convened, with Mr. Haberman as its chairman, to choose a standard symbol that could be used nationwide to encode product data electronically.

The 21st-century counterpart of the bar code, radio frequency identification (RFID) has not yet found its own Haberman -- partly because of the unintended consequences of his advocacy. The big winner was not his own companies, Hills-Korvette and Finast, but a still relatively obscure newcomer in Arkansas, Walmart, that was exploiting point-of-sale and inventory data more effectively than anybody else, to the consternation of competitors large and small.

Would Haberman's colleagues have been so eager to sign on if they had known? Today Walmart is the pioneer of RFID, but others haven't been so eager to follow because of the privacy issues it raises. Whether or not it's an "evolutionary dead end," as the technology publisher and guru Tim O'Reilly has declared, the days of chummy consensus are over.

Image: Mick Tsikas/Reuters.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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