Cell phones and RFID: two great tastes, together

You’ve heard a lot recently about radio frequency identification technologies and how they let companies track their wares more efficiently. Most notably, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the U.S. Department of Defense have mandated RFID support from their suppliers, a move that’s certain to drive strong investment in the technology going forward — at least among manufacturing and distribution companies.

But what if you’re not a manufacturer, distributor or direct supplier to such firms? If you figured RFID wouldn’t be relevant to you, think again. RFID, in conjunction with cellular technologies, can improve the productivity of a non-manufacturing workforce in several ways.

The trick lies in envisioning RFID applications that integrate seamlessly with your mobile infrastructure. In other words, imagine if you didn’t need a specialized RFID reader to capture device information but could take and transmit readings via an ordinary cell phone. How might that improve the day-to-day productivity of you and your peers?

Take automating asset tracking. Today, facilities and IT departments spend an inordinate amount of time tracking physical assets such as PCs, routers, even mundane things such as cables and AB switches. Instead of having to send techs out to remote sites to manually count devices, what if a cell-phone-equipped office administrator could “swipe” relevant devices and send up-to-date information (including builds, revenue numbers and the like) back to your centralized asset-tracking application?

Or say you’ve got a traveling sales force that regularly needs to record data such as miles traveled or customers visited. This information might be used for CRM applications and for expense reimbursements. Today, that salesperson has to wait to get back to the hotel or office, log on to the appropriate application and enter data. The wait reduces both the accuracy and timeliness of the data — and hence, the company’s operational efficiency.

What if that same salesman could hit a few buttons on the car’s dashboard and have the information sent back to those applications via cell phone? Think how happy he would be to arrive home after a trip to find an accurate expense check already in the inbox. (Not to mention how happy the sales manager is at having a complete, up-to-date record of client contacts at any point in time.)

That’s exclusive of the folks whose day-to-day job is about tracking retail products — soda cans in delis, ATMs in lobbies. Those folks could obtain fast, easy, up-to-the-second access to information about how their products are displayed and supported.

You get the picture: RFID plus mobile phones is an idea whose time has come. So how come mobile phone manufacturers are asleep at the switch? They aren’t. Not all of them, anyway. Nokia recently introduced a Mobile RFID kit for its 5140 GSM phones. Whether or not this product takes off, it’s a safe bet that something like it will. Cell phones and RFID are just too good a combination to ignore forever.

Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at johna@nemertes.com.