Software consortium brings open source focus to RFID

The recently-formed RadioActive Software Foundation claims it wants to the Apache of the RFID world by creating an open source forum around that technology.

Founded by two companies that offer services around RFID deployments,

one in Toronto and one in Kennesaw, Ga., the organization aims to attract corporate giants like IBM, but also smaller companies and individual developers. The Apache Software Foundation, a non-profit organization that fosters the development of open source projects, already has that level of support and serves as a useful model for RadioActive, according to one of its founders.

Somen Mondal, who’s also the co-CEO of Toronto-based N4 Systems, aims to create a haven for open source applications and middleware that can be used in conjunction with RFID deployments in retail supply chains. RFID, or radio frequency identification, is a technology that has generated a lot of buzz in retail over the last few years and has been heralded as a successor to the bar code. RFID tags don’t require line-of-sight scanning, unlike a bar code, and can hold a lot more information. The technology, while still in its infancy, is being championed by Wal-Mart. The retail giant mandated that its top 100 suppliers become RFID compliant starting January of this year.

But because the technology is so young, there is plenty of time to grow open source solutions around it, said Mondal. His organization is aiming to build a code library of sorts, as well as full-blown applications that are Java-based and can be used by any organization that works in the retail space.

“They all need a base middleware that can communicate with their RFID applications. Our goal is to create a base and then, perhaps like Apache, go into more specific sub projects,” said Mondal.

“Our goal is compete in the same way that Linux competes with Microsoft or Apache competes with Microsoft. It’s offering an alternative where people can see the source code, do whatever they want with it and change it however they want.”

All of RadioActive’s projects would be built around standards emerging from the EPCGlobal Network, the international body that is pushing for standards around electronic product codes and RFID.

Michael Mealling, the CEO of Kennesaw-based Refactored Networks, used to work in the R&D department of Verisign, a key EPCGlobal Partner. He is also a co-founder of the RadioActive Software Foundation and has been involved in the standards process from its roots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The role of open source in RFID retail deployments is “basically to accelerate the industry,” he said. “If you look at any large ubiquitous system, there’s always at least some component of it or toolset that is free in some sense or other.”

Retail supply chains require transparency because so much information is being exchanged by so many people, he argued. Open source applications can help supply that transparency.

“If you can imagine a supply chain where only half of the members implemented data exchange standards, you wouldn’t get very good visibility,” he said. “By making sure there is at least some implementation of the standards in a free way . . . you create the ability for the system to have a much higher adoption rate.”

Mealling said he’s had some interest from other organizations that would like to be a part of RadioActive, but won’t name them until they’re officially in. Like Apache, members could include large corporate interests like Sun Microsystems as well as smaller firms and individual developers. Retailers may also be interested in joining, but Mealling said that they would probably come later since they would probably wait for the organization to gather momentum.

There could easily be a role for open source software in RFID deployments, but it’s too early to establish what that role might be, said retail analyst Marty McGinnis of McGinnis & Co. Ltd., based in Toronto.

“It could be in the long term that (open source) is a solid strategy,” he said. “but given the timelines that have been imposed – or self-imposed – people may be looking for something that can be up and running now. Most companies are either taking a toe-in-the-water approach (to RFID), or some of them are running fairly hard because they don’t want to be seen to be left behind.”

In a lot of companies, RFID is being made to fit with the retail and warehousing solutions that are already in place, he added. “Everybody’s looking at RFID as they did initially with bar codes – it’s a bolt-on to their existing system.”

Some of the initial traction for RadioActive could come from Asia, said Mondal, where open source has been embraced as a low-cost alternative to proprietary solutions – China in particular. “I would almost guarantee that they would look at a project like this.”

Mondal added that RadioActive is in talks with universities in India and Japan who could help its development efforts. By watching the rise of Linux and the open source community in recent years, he learned that “Partnership and sponsorship is very important.

“It’s key to have people that are dedicated and it’s hard to get resources to build the software,” he said. “But you find that people instinctively want to help because really we’re just giving something away.”

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