SAP to show off RFID's potential

When SAP's TechEd gathering kicks off next week in Las Vegas, it will lack one of the traditional trade-show trappings: The conference's attendee badges will be bar-code free. SAP has declared TechEd an RFID zone.

RFID (radio frequency identification) tags are a nascent technology with a potentially huge impact, particularly for retailers and distributors. The chips store and transmit data to nearby receivers. That versatile capability has a wide range of possible uses, from easing product tracking to carrying out electronic transactions, such as monetary exchanges or allowing access to secured areas.

RFID trials have been going on for years, and some companies have mapped out plans to take advantage of the technology. Wal-Mart Stores hopes to begin using RFID tags to track pallets from its suppliers in 2005. But technical issues and the tags' cost have kept RFID technology in the developmental stages. Privacy concerns have recently joined the list of obstacles to widespread RFID use: California's state senate held a hearing last month to consider the implications of the tags being used one day to invisibly track the movements of goods and the consumers carrying them.

But for supply-chain software developers like SAP, RFID is a key emerging technology and a potential area of competitive advantage. SAP is working with several customers on RFID projects and has some support for the technology already built into its software, said spokesman Bill Wohl.

By showcasing the technology at TechEd, SAP hopes to prompt developers to consider RFID's potential uses. SAP will include RFID tags in attendees' badges. On the show floor, vendor booths will feature receiver antennae that can record the contact information of booth visitors, without the usual badge-scanning routine. Kiosks in the exhibit hall will allow visitors to stroll up and check their personal show schedules, which will be automatically detected though the RFID tags and displayed.

"It will not only make for a better conference, but it might also end up spurring a customer project down the road," Wohl said. "You've got to think one or two (of the attendees) is going to think, 'Hmm, I've got a project in the works this could be useful for.' It's that sort of process that creates innovation in our industry."

But what if attendees end up on the contact lists of vendors whose products don't interest them, simply because they inadvertently wandered too close to that booth's receiver?

SAP has set the threshold for having your tag recorded fairly high, Wohl said.

"Because RFID is new, we want people to be visually aware that it's happening," he said. "There will be a very visible antenna in the booth, and people will be encouraged to get their tags very close to it."

SAP's focus at the TechEd show will be discussing its progress with its NetWeaver integration platform, introduced in January as the new middleware glue for connecting both SAP's applications and those of other vendors. SAP technology strategy head Shai Agassi plans to use his keynote at the event to talk about several customer implementations of NetWeaver.

One big announcement at the show will be SAP's introduction of a new developer community. The group's Web site will launch next week, seeded with forums, chat rooms, and SAP-provided content such as sample code.

SAP hopes to develop a user-led community akin to the one Sun Microsystems has developed around Java, Wohl said. As SAP began encouraging development around its software with more tools than just its proprietary ABAP programming language, it recognized that it needed to offer new kinds of support to its expanding pool of developers, he said.

SAP's TechEd show begins Tuesday. It will hold a second TechEd show in Switzerland at the end of the month. SAP expects a combined total of 7,000 people to attend the two events.

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