Microsoft readies RFID software for 2006
Microsoft has been plodding inroads to the RFID industry for years, but yesterday's was it first product-related announcement. In February 2004, Microsoft set up its RFID advisory council with customers such as Wipro, Manhattan Associates and RFID hardware maker Symbol Technologies, which have been part of Microsoft's RFID pilot project. Seems Microsoft is now ready for serious RFID business. Even though Microsoft has not yet finalized its RFID product roadmap, yesterday's announcement, by senior VP Paul Flessner at the company's TechEd conference in Florida, promises more rapid progress for the RFID industry. "The market has been waiting for larger companies to credibly commit to the market beyond marketing budgets and conference attendants," said Erik Michielsen, director of RFID at ABI Research. "I think this a significant step in the market." Michielsen also noted that when a Microsoft senior VPs gets involved in this type of roll out it signifies this is a "big deal" for the software maker. "We wanted to clarify our intentions," said Eric Swift, director of product management in Microsoft's business process and integration division. So far, RFID software has mostly been customized and fragmented applications, making implementation and scalability of RFID through an entire supply-chain difficult. Microsoft is working on Windows and SQL Server software that could simplify the transference of data from RFID tags into databases, and make the data accessible to the enterprise. Built on the .NET framework, Microsoft's RFID software may be integrated in third-party applications or used on its own to capture, interpret and manager data from sensors. The software will include an event management layer with a business rules engine, to enable context- or rules-based processing on RFID data, which would directly dovetail into enterprise applications or processors through web services integration. Microsoft's move into the space promises a more common ground for RFID interoperability throughout the supply chain, Michielsen said. By having Microsoft-based software to manage RFID and related business processes, enterprises stand to save time and money, and have improved visibility into their RFID data. Microsoft isn't talking about product specifics yet, but the company plans to release either a beta or finished product within the first half of 2006, Swift said. According to Michielsen, "2006 is the year I think Microsoft will try to make its mark on RFID." Swift said it was too early to talk pricing or Microsoft's potential revenue upswing from RFID, but said RFID "has a tremendous amount of potential." He said he also expects Microsoft's software will rapidly stimulate faster RFID adoption, which likely will be the case. RFID software from Microsoft promises to be a boon for major RFID players, such as Symbol Technologies. Earlier this week, Symbol launched what analyst Michielsen calls the first Windows-enabled non-handheld (or fixed) RFID tag reader. Symbol's XR400 is embedded with Windows CE operating system to enable enterprises to more easily run third-party applications (think Microsoft) that manage data captured by the reader, rather than having RFID data being processed by a back-office system. "You're processing information as you receive it, so you're lowering latency and load on your network," said Alan Melling, Symbol's senior director of EPC solutions. Symbol, which counts Wal-Mart Stores as one of its marquee customers, has a number of handheld readers, most of which are Windows CE-enabled. The advantage of a fixed reader, however, is that it can automatically read a bulk of RFID tags, rather than requiring someone to physically scan each tag. Melling said one of the reasons Symbol chose Microsoft's operating system was to ensure it would work with Microsoft's upcoming RFID products. He said the company is considering potential future versions of the reader with a Linux operating system, but has made no public commitment yet. The new reader by Huntville, New York-based Symbol is available and costs between $2,500 and $3,000 per device. Melling agrees that RFID data management and other RFID software from Microsoft will help speed adoption of RFID "by really coming out with a product strategy that would make RFID just another soft of data that can be manipulated by a whole slew of Microsoft products."