Microsoft identifies with RFID tag organization

AutoID, a not-for-profit organization promoting the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags in inventory tracking and management, has won the support of Microsoft for its activities, it said Wednesday.

AutoID, formed last month, is a joint venture of the Uniform Code Council (UCC) and EAN International (EAN), two bodies involved in the standardization of computer-readable product identification technology. The work of UCC and EAN is most obvious in the bar codes found on the packaging of consumer goods.

Microsoft is the first company to announce its intention to join AutoID, according to the group's president, Dicki Lulay. "We welcome people like Microsoft and other solutions suppliers. We want to get as many people as possible involved," she said.

The group plans to take inventory control far beyond bar codes. Using uniquely numbered RFID tags, computer systems will be able to identify not just the type of product in a package, but also precisely which package it is, including when it was manufactured and where it has been stored, by referring to vast databases of product information.

AutoID will take over the research activities of a separate entity known as Auto-ID Center, a collaboration between around 100 companies and five universities.

The goal of AutoID is the development of five technology elements:

-- an electronic product code which will permit the identification of goods down to the level of individual items;

-- a system of RFID tags and readers, allowing product identification at a distance without need for line of sight;

-- an Object Name Service, similar to the Internet's DNS (Domain Name System), to translate the numeric code held in an RFID tag into a description of the item it identifies;

-- a physical markup language based on XML (Extensible Markup Language) to systematically describe products, and

-- Savant, a distributed database of information about items identified with RFID tags.

Microsoft is not yet ready to talk about its goals in moving into the RFID market, or exactly which of the five technology elements it will be working on.

"This is an overall strategy. We haven't announced what our plans are going to be," said Microsoft Business Solutions Senior Product Planner Eric Estroff, explaining the company's interest in the technology.

However, Estroff did indicate the kinds of products that might eventually incorporate or be affected by AutoID technology. "Think of it as a supply chain management issue, from point of manufacture to point of sale," he said. "Microsoft's Retail Management System, a point of sale inventory management and payment processing application, is a clear example of where something would need to be integrated. It's safe to assume that in the 2004 timeframe we will have something that will support RFID."

Accenture recently released a report on the market for AutoID technology. The report's authors predict that by 2005, manufacturers in the consumer electronics and grocery sectors will use RFID tags to track pallets and cases of products, while retailers, particularly of consumer electronics, clothing and pharmaceuticals, will be tagging individual items. The report, "If you build it, they will come," was handed to sponsors in February and published in May.

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