RFID, or radio frequency identification, has been hailed for its promise as a superior way to keep tabs on merchandise in warehouses and retail outlets. Scanning of data-laden chips on pallets and products would help keep inventories in order and assure buyers that they're not paying money for counterfeit goods.
In Mississippi, the technology was used to help identify victims of Hurricane Katrina.
It's also been denounced as a harbinger of a Big Brother society in which personal privacy disappears, either because of voluminous record-keeping on people's shopping habits and travel patterns or because the chips could end up under people's skin.
Most uses so far have been limited to trial runs, but mandates are coming from both the public and private sectors. The US Department of Defense, for instance, recently insisted that its suppliers of packaged rations, clothing, personal-care items and weapon-system repair parts radio-tag products shipped to certain supply depots.
The Gartner report sticks to the mundane side of things, focusing on how RFID would augment — rather than replace — ubiquitous bar codes.
While bar codes are better at collecting data in highly structured locales such as warehouses, RFID tags will be useful in collecting data on mobile assets and in unstructured business processes, including retail stores and hospitals, Gartner said.
"Just because bar codes are used extensively in distribution centres does not mean RFID will be," Jeff Woods, Gartner's research vice-president, said in a statement. "Businesses are beginning to discover business value in places where they cannot use bar coding, which will be the force that moves RFID forward."
Woods pointed to the role of the Food and Drug Administration, which is pushing for RFID tags to combat sales of fake pharmaceutical products. If the FDA's regulatory activity proceeds, he said, widespread tagging could begin around 2007.