Tikitag: RFID eval on the cheap

RFID systems can be pricey but the Tikitag RFID system is a great place to start.

The concept of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is simple: "Tags" that can be read by a radio system are attached to objects so those objects can be identified and tracked within business processes and workflows. Though the concept is simple the technology is complex.

RFID tags consist of a tiny antenna and an integrated circuit. When triggered by a radio signal the tag responds with data that can include a unique ID number or more detailed information such as current and historical temperature or even the G-forces the tag has experienced (such intelligence can be crucial when shipping biological materials or delicate products).

And consider the potential of waving an RFID reading device at a pallet and being able to identify every item on the pallet. Better still, if those items were individually tagged in the production process, then the ability to track their entire life cycle can create amazing opportunities to manage quality and find efficiencies.

RFID solutions are now readily available and, depending how much you want to spend, tags can be readable at anything from an inch to tens or potentially dozens of feet.

The least expensive RFID evaluation system I've seen is from a new company called Tikitag, an Alcatel-Lucent Ventures operation.

The basic version of Tikitag's eponymous RFID system, which costs $49.95, consists of a USB connected RFID reader (it's about the size and thickness of half a deck of cards) with a readout distance of about one inch and 10 RFID tags, one inch diameter paper stickers with a unique 14 digit hexadecimal serial number printed on each (extra tags are just over $1 each).

You download the client software -- which works with Windows XP, Vista and Intel-based MacOSX 10.4 or later (Linux support is under development) -- from the Tikitag site. Software installation isn't hard but the process, at least under Windows, could be simplified and better explained.

Where Tikitag gets clever (perhaps too clever) is in its online orientation. When you place a tag near the reader the client software receives the tag's unique ID, which is then sent to what Tikitag calls an "application" that you have defined on the Tikitag Web site.

That Web application then tells the client software what PC program to execute; this can, in principle, be any program doing anything. There's also an API that can be used to create and manage the Web applications.

Tikitag does work in an offline mode but it then only allows you to call a URL or control the default local media player (yes, that latter is an odd choice). Tikitag needs to expand offline support particularly for third-party application integration.

I also have to criticize the Tikitag site for no application privacy (all applications are public), its eccentric and unclear use of forms – buttons should look like buttons, not like text fields – and that the site is broken under Firefox 3 and IE 7 (images don't show). Oh, and when I ask for a password reset, do it or tell me why you can't, don't just appear to do it.

So, what can you do with Tikitag (even with problematic browser support)? How about (at least when the tags become much less expensive) labeling all of those devices and their power adapters so when you find a lost wall wart you can figure out what it belongs to? How about being able to walk up to a PC, read the attached tag and automatically load the vendor manual on your laptop?

Many of the applications on the Tikitag site are frankly lame (who needs an RFID tag to launch a Skype call?) but the concept of labeling everything and anything in your organization and then associating it with descriptive or supporting data is powerful. As an evaluation tool Tikitag is definitely worth getting a hold of, but the Web site, yuck. Even so I'll give Tikitag a 4 out 5.

Gibbs is thinking about tagging his family in Ventura, Calif. Send your unique ID to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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