Going It Alone With RFID

That message of self-sufficiency was the subtext beneath the avalanche of announcements pouring out of the EPCglobal Conference this week in Baltimore. The leading U.S. gathering of all things RFID drew a sea of major vendors such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft - all eager to say something about their efforts around the wireless technology. A closer examination, though, revealed almost no programmatic efforts for involving midmarket SIs and resellers in the expected RFID groundswell.

ABC Computers, for example, was the motivator behind Microsoft's announcement of a successful midmarket pilot. A long-time Navision reseller/systems integrator focused on the manufacturing sector, ABC took it upon itself to research RFID technology, find the right vendors of RFID-tag printers and readers, and approach Microsoft for help with existing Navision customer, Jack Link's Beef Jerky.

"We asked Microsoft to provide us with their subject- and content-matter experts," said George Britts, vice president of business development for the Waupaca, Wis., solution provider. "We expected them and also the hardware providers to help us with this."

But with 25 people on staff, ABC didn't have the weight to just demand help from the Redmond, Wash., software giant. It had to talk to Microsoft from a position of knowledge, gleaned through its own work. ABC President Donovan Lane, for example, started with a simple Google search of "RFID starter kit." "Sure enough, up popped Texas Instruments' 'RFID in a box,' with a reader and 15 different tags," said Lane. He had the package shipped to him overnight.

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ABC's technologists then hooked up the reader to Navision and wrote a routine to make Navision talk to the reader every three seconds. With its RFID knowledge, ABC got Microsoft's attention.

"It helps when speaking with Microsoft that we knew enough of the RFID basics," said Britts. "It's fair to say that Microsoft was a willing audience. But we were the catalyst. Was it a lot of effort to put together all of the powers inside Microsoft? Yes. But we are so passionate about RFID for data collection that we want it in the hands of the channel for MBS and Navision."

As a result of ABC's effort, the Microsoft Business Solutions will include RFID support for upcoming versions of Axapta, Great Plains and Navision.

Leading government solution provider GTSI also revealed something of its RFID efforts, with news from EPCglobal that it will work with two-year-old RFID vendor ODIN Technologies, of Ireland. "ODIN is a tiny element of our activities in RFID," said Arpad Toth, head of GTSI's Sentrix Physical Security business unit. "This is likely to be part of a series of announcements from us in the RFID area." Citing security reasons, Toth declined to elaborate on GTSI's RFID plans. But given its government focus, the Chantilly, Va.-based provider -- which works with more than 800 vendors -- has both the technical and business clout to suss out RFID-related opportunities.

And in the near term, at least, most solution providers also will be left to their own devices to glean what they need about this type of wireless data collection. IBM for example, still cannot say whether it will offer any sort of channel education program when it introduces its WebSphere server for RFID in the next calendar quarter. Hewlett-Packard's efforts also remain largely focused on the enterprise, with enterprise-size partners such as Bearing Point.

One vendor that has set out to educate its channel is Sun Microsystems, with its Sun RFID offering for iForce Partners. A developer program for ISVs, IHVs, value-added resellers and SIs, the offering includes downloadable toolkits for writing hardware reader adapters as well as the downloadable Sun Java Systems RFID software for handling the communications and processing of electronic product code (EPC) data and events that pass between readers and tags. Kim Celestre, marketing program manager, said Sun will also release the beta versions of the RFID software for Linux and Solaris 10 as they become available.

The iForce offering also includes a Web site containing white papers and other RFID-related documentation, a formalized procedure, plus clarified rules of engagement, for requesting use of Sun's RFID test centers in Dallas and Glasgow, Scotland, and technical support in the form of advice from the company's so-called "Sun RFID Aces."

"It's a technical support forum where partners describe their issues and their question is answered by someone from a group of internal experts," said Celestre. "We call it Sun Partner RFID Support."

Sun RFID offering for Partners will be available in midOctober.