New chips, new tags, new opportunities?

NXP’s announcement of their new ‘ICODE SLIX 2’ RFID chip (when incorporated into tags) appears to present a whole new world of opportunity to librarians to develop their library services in the decades ahead.

In the last few years library professionals have collaborated in a most extraordinary way to bring the benefits of RFID to their customers and their stock management. This cooperation has resulted in compatible standards in chip design, tag performance and reliability in an open systems market. The principle benefit is that it allows the libraries’ development budgets to be spent with any supplier who shares these ideals and brings opportunities from a variety of newly developed products.

Whether RF, barcode or RFID there are hundreds of millions of tagged items occupying library shelves and stockrooms all processed (issued, returned, stock-checked) using standard equipment available from a range of suppliers.

 From time to time new ideas have emerged promising better functionality and offering increased options to utilise new developments in technology. Often they fail to gain wide acceptance because they do not mix easily with the established tagged stock, or they don’t deliver open systems benefits.

Whilst welcoming any new development that could enhance the RFID offering it was with some concern we heard from one of our customers of a press release announcing a new ‘ICODE SLIX2’ RFID chip for tags. Obviously, as specialists in RFID we were expected to be able to explain the impact and opportunities this development may have on the library sector. Investigation, initially with a main chip/tag supplier, revealed this announcement (expected later in the year) seems to have been issued prior to full consultation.

It would appear that the announcement is not fully endorsed by the ILS (LMS) or RFID industry and rather than delivering the benefits of an “open market” it seems to be pointing to particular equipment manufacturers and systems suppliers. Already features of the new chip, which could offer universal advantages, seem to be the subject of attempted ring-fencing through patent applications which would restrict universal uptake of the benefits. The effects (if granted) would be to render solutions proprietary, with the benefits of lock-in for the supplier and the nightmare of loss of open-systems choice for the unwary client library managers.

2CQR (along with others) has been working closely with the Library Industry, through the auspices of BIC/Cilip, to try to ensure that the benefits of new technologies are made available to libraries. The underlying principle has been to seek standardisation and thereby an open systems market which keeps suppliers honest by maintaining choice (and, hence effective price control) for libraries.

Suppliers and librarians have worked long and hard to achieve the level of standardisation currently enjoyed. Those efforts have brought freedom of choice and cost benefits they should not give up easily. Presumably the capability to store new forms of data also requires an urgent upgrade to the ISO/UK National Profile standards in order to ensure that its capacity for additional content doesn’t become proprietary and, therefore, contrary to the interests of the Libraries/RFID community.

There will always be isolated prestige projects where cost and full observance of standards are deemed unimportant. However, for the majority this new chip, and the tags into which it is incorporated, have to live amongst the many millions of others already in place.

From experience, ‘hotter’ tags (and these aren’t the first) don’t necessarily mean a better experience. They do mean a different experience which we must all come to terms with in the design and operation of systems.

Looking forward there needs to be a debate (within the community) about exporting elements of library databases into the expanded memory space now (potentially) defined by the book stock.

We should also consider the efforts of the BIC ‘RFID & Privacy Task & Finish Working Group’ which is considering how to reassure users that the information in their pocket (e.g. the books they are carrying) cannot be intercepted and misused. That storm is coming in from the US and we are working together to try to nullify and accommodate it before it hits.

The announcement of the ‘ICODE SLIX 2’ RFID chip gives rise to concerns that, as already, efforts are being made to claim exclusivity for some of the advantages. Such exclusivity may have benefits for prestige projects but cannot be in the best interests of the wider library community. Particularly as the benefits of ISO28560-2 and the UK National Profile have not yet been fully realised and the group working to move us beyond SIP into a world web services (LCF – the Libraries Communication Framework) is gaining traction but has not yet borne fruit.

Furthermore the management of mixed tag stocks presents challenges, as will the need to move forward with ‘ISO28560 – ??’ development.

However, where the funds and organisational inspiration exist to allow for complete re-tagging (and replacement of equipment) it is possible to imagine libraries with greater potential for connecting to the ‘information highways’.

Summary

We should not be Luddites but integration of this ‘new’ capability will be dependent on many factors (technical and human) so they cannot simply be taken at face value.

These newly announced capabilities are not all entirely recent inventions. As an example 2CQR have, for years, been using available fields in standard tags to store URL data, to bring books to life, as a multi-media experience, in our ‘Wonder Wall’ product.

The words of caution, then, are simply these:

In driving forward towards what must be a better future: make sure that the debate is kept open and transparent, and that you stay involved. Be certain of the benefits and carefully assess what you might stand to lose and, when you have a clear vision of what you wish to achieve, join with relevant suppliers in an open market to achieve your goals.

2CQR completely endorses open systems and technological advance. As always, we will strive to be your best professional advisor and, because we care about libraries, wish you success with your project, and a wide choice of partners.

Mike Chambers

2CQR

March 2015