Commoditising RFID middleware – Microsoft enter the market

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Content Copyright © 2007 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

On August 21 2007, I had a talk with Anush Kumar, Senior Product Manager for Microsoft BizTalk RFID, as he prepared for the official launch of Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006 R2.

Holloway: This is a 1st version of the RFID components of BizTalk, what is special about your product?

Kumar: We sought to build an RFID platform that would enable broad adoption. The first step was to provide a rich layer of device abstraction, stretching out from passive tags and readers from Intermec, Avery Dennison, Motorola, MTI, Printronix, Unitech, etc. to the active arena from companies like Ubisense and Wavetrend. We have also started to look at appliance vendors such as Reva. These all compliment existing capabilities to run on XP/Vista and in a blackbox environment.

Holloway: OK, that covers the hardware end and my own research has shown that you seem to have the largest number of hardware partners (17) of all the RFID Middleware vendors (when one looks at web sites). But what about Applications?

Kumar: The value for RFID is in having the right business applications to exploit the event data. Microsoft has attracted a rich variety of ISV’s due to the light weight of BizTalk and that attractive OEM price of $500 per processor. Over this year we have been working with a number of ISVs to deliver 3 Value Propositions:

  1. Reducing the cost & complexity of supply chain management.
  2. Delivering enterprise class SOA infrastructure.
  3. Supporting People-Ready Process.

We started working with specialists such as Xterprise and Cactus Commerce, and have then moved to global ISVs and SIs such as HighJump and HP.

Holloway: How do you see the RFID market?

Kumar: One key trend is that the price of RFID projects is coming down. As an example, the price of tags is getting close to the 6 cent mark in North America, given the right volumes. I know from talking to you that tag costs are going down in Europe as well—I think you said the lowest you had come across was 6p. At the same time tag quality and durability have also improved. One of our customers, Blue Sushi (see Closed-loop Sushi tracking in Seattle), went through a rigorous exercise to choose the right tags to fit their scenario. In that case the tags had to withstand hot water and detergent in commercial dishwashers but still be economical. It would have been very hard to find that combination a few years ago. A similar trend can be seen with reader prices and reader quality.

We see this impact in RTLS (Real-Time Location Solutions) for the Logistics, Manufacturing and Retail sectors. In this case asset visibility is critical. Track and trace capabilities lower the cost of managing these assets across the end to end business process. Now that RFID costs are coming down, these solutions are available to a much broader set of companies.

Across the board, the costs and complexity involved in an RFID project to work are coming down. This will be a major catalyst to increase adoption of RFID technology.

Holloway: Do you see Microsoft in the near future providing some sort of ROI guidance?

Kumar: Since each project is unique, customers have told us that they want case studies of successful implementations, rather than a single model. As a result, we are working to publish more studies and working closely with our partners to share the work that they are doing with customers.

Holloway: How about your support for simulation? The more I talk to users and SIs, the more I see that a simulator has tremendous cost benefits in terms not only of the proof-of concept, but also afterwards as businesses use the event data from RFID to improve their processes. In the original beta version, the facility provided was pretty basic, what have you done to improve the capabilities for the version being release to market?

Kumar: We have made some substantial improvements since the first beta release. This includes a substantial change from the facility you saw. For the final release we have exposed a simulation framework that can be exploited by our partners and customers. We have built a supply chain demonstration to accompany the release and this has been built using the simulation framework.

Holloway: Is there anything that you regret has not made the cut-off for this release?

Kumar: We involved partners in this release very early, so the product is very mature for a first release. However, there are always things that don’t make the first cut. One of those is support for the mobility stack with Windows CE in this release. Another scenario that we want to enable is to expose devices as services using Devices Profile for Web Services (DPWS) specification. We are currently working with our partners to deliver this in the future.

Holloway: I see that Kevin Turner, Microsoft’s Chief Operating Officer, is doing the keynote at US launch. This must be quite a coup!

Kumar: You are quite right. This is a really big recognition by senior management of the importance of BizTalk Server R2.

Accompanying this interview, I am putting together a product evaluation of the Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006 R2. This will be available from