Opinion: RFID kick-start

Worrying about RFID? Now's a good time for it. Really. And not just because the topic of radio frequency identification tags is hovering like a dark cloud over your IT shop. Last week at the big CeBIT trade show in Hanover, Germany, dozens of vendors were showing RFID-related products -- including cell phone maker Nokia, which announced an add-on kit for people who want to use their Nokia phones to read RFID tags.

Which means RFID is now officially mainstream. And learning RFID on the cheap is now officially practical.

And considering how much some companies are likely to spend on RFID over the next few years, cheap is a very attractive price.

Face it: Right now RFID is probably a mystery to you and your IT staff. Oh, you may have read a few articles on RFID. You may even have seen demonstrations. But for all you know, the articles are wrong and the demos are rigged.

Unless you're already hip-deep in an RFID implementation -- because Target or the Defense Department has set a 2005 deadline for you to put RFID tags on every pallet and carton you ship their way -- you and your people don't know RFID.

And you should. You know that. If you make or move any kind of product, eventually you'll need to start building some RFID expertise. But there's only one way to do that: Put RFID technology in the hands of your IT staff and let them kick it around.

But usually there's a nasty trade-off. If you bring in a technology early in its life cycle, your staff gets the maximum exposure and the most time to figure it out. Unfortunately, early on is when any new technology is likely to be most expensive.

You can wait until the price comes down. But then you could find yourself racing to meet a mandate that customers or your CEO has set for getting that technology up and running -- and making all your early mistakes against a hard deadline. That gets expensive, too.

But right now, there's a sweet spot for RFID. You've still got time -- and RFID starter technology has gotten cheap.

Right now you can buy RFID evaluation kits from companies like SkyeTek in the US. For US$750 or less, you get an RFID reader, sample RFID tags, software -- pretty much everything your techies need to start getting comfortable with this stuff.

No, it's not enough to do a pilot project. Think of this as the prepilot stage, when your staff can try out RFID, experiment with it, kick the tires and get a real gut-level sense of how it works and what it can do.

And you can most likely pay for it all out of petty cash.

Of course, those RFID products at CeBIT are a sign of what's to come. By the end of the year, we'll be awash in RFID-enabled devices. Wait another six months and you'll see RFID reaching all the way down into consumer products -- cell phones, handhelds computers, plug-and-play PC peripherals. Ordinary people, or at least tech-savvy hobbyists, will be making and scanning their own RFID tags. The sweet spot will have gotten sweeter.

But if you wait, you've lost that head start.

You've lost something else, too. For the past few years, the people in your IT department have been grinding away. The hours have been long, the layoffs have been depressing, and, with no money for new projects in the budget, the technology hasn't exactly been exciting.

Now you've got an opportunity to remind them that there's a future for them in your IT shop. A future with challenging technology. A future that will require honing old skills and developing new ones. A future you want them to get ready for.

Don't waste that opportunity. Quit worrying about RFID and start doing something about it now -- on the cheap.

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