For all the hype surrounding radio frequency identification, or RFID, mandates from retail giants like Wal-Mart, suppliers have been reluctant to invest any more in RFID than minimally necessary to satisfy high-profile customers. Most observers attribute this slowed adoption rate to several practical concerns, some of which Symbol Technologies hopes to address with recently announced products.

Perhaps the most significant of these announcements was an agreement that Symbol forged with software giant Microsoft, leading to Symbol's XR400 becoming the first fixed RFID reader to support the Windows CE operating system. While other RFID readers generate data that require users to install middleware that translates RFID information for the popular Microsoft suite, the XR400 lets third-party vendors develop applications directly on a familiar platform available at the reader's location.

By being willing to integrate Windows CE in Symbol's XR400 reader — the first of many RFID-industry announcements expected from Microsoft — the software giant makes it easier for companies other than suppliers and retailers to embrace RFID solutions, said Alan Melling, Symbol's senior director of business development.

“This is one step forward in making [RFID] more accessible to enterprises,” Melling said. “As RFID becomes more common, it needs to be easier to use and easier to install.”

In an effort to address the latter issue, Symbol developed the DC600 (see photo), a RFID-reader package designed to be used in a portal, such as a door. Melling said the primary benefit to the DC600 is that it can be deployed in less than 30 minutes — much less than the five to eight hours required to install many RFID portal readers.

“If you own a warehouse with 100 dock doors, and it's going to take you eight hours per dock door to install a reader, that may be too much effort and expense,” he said.

ABI Research analyst Sara Shah said the pre-packaged DC600, which integrates a XR400 reader, is an industry-leading step in the right direction for Symbol.

“Right now, it's one of the fastest, easiest ways to install a portal reader,” Shah said. “But I'm sure their competitors are watching … and I'm just waiting for them to make their announcements.”

One key RFID problem Symbol did not address was the cost of RFID tags; however, help on that front appears to be on the way. High-volume RFID tags that cost $1 apiece a year ago have dropped to 20¢ each. Further price drops are expected as chip makers improve their manufacturing processes and receive higher-volume orders, although Shah said promises of a 5¢ tag will not be realized for “a really long time — I think that was really media hype.”

Even if tag costs drop, many suppliers claim RFID will not be useful to them until the technology is more reliable, Shah said. Today, RFID readers are not 100% accurate in reading tags for all cases stacked on a palette, but Shah said the technology is improving, and suppliers are learning to affix tags in easier-to-read locations on merchandise.

The fact that so many problems have been resolved from a year ago — or are being addressed — is an encouraging sign for the evolution of the nascent industry, Melling said. Symbol, IBM and Royal Philips Electronics furthered this progress last month by demonstrating interoperability between tags based on the new EPC Generation 2 standard and older Generation 1 tags.

“We know the pieces are coming together, whether it happens in the next six months or the next 18 months,” Melling said. “But everybody knows it's going to happen.”