Corporate users with mandates to adopt radio frequency identification technology will get a chance at this week's EPCglobal conference in Baltimore to gauge how much progress the industry has made.
IBM has announced plans to invest $250m (£138m) over the next five years in sensor products and services, including RFID tags. Another major player, Hewlett-Packard, has also said it is partnering with BearingPoint on RFID services targeted at the retail industry.
Numerous other suppliers, including OatSystems and Sun, are launching new versions of applications to handle the huge volume of data expected to be generated by RFID systems.
Meanwhile, EPCglobal plans to stage a public demonstration of RFID technology and its EPCglobal network - from reading tags at a factory to the shipment of goods to a distribution centre.
EPCglobal spokesman Jack Grasso said RFID pioneers such as Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Gillette, IBM, Sun and Tibco would participate.
Grasso said EPCglobal hoped to finalise the new new Generation 2 tag standard this year and is set to announce a third-party certification lab that will certify compliant hardware.
Samsys Technologies has disclosed it used MET Laboratories last month to test the interoperability of its UHF Class 0 readers with Matrics tags, and its Class 1 reader with tags from Alien Technology and STMicroelectronics.
A spokeswoman for EPCglobal said that more than 100 exhibitors are expected on the conference showfloor, bidding for the attention of more than 1,150 pre-registered attendees. The conference is expected to be one of the largest events so far to cater to the burgeoning RFID marketplace.
IBM has also announced it expects to release its WebSphere-based RFID middleware this year.
Forrester Research analyst Christine Overby said it was important for IBM to put structure behind some of its early RFID work through the formalisation of its Sensor and Actuator division. She said IBM's partner ecosystem, plus the expansion of RFID beyond standard retail scenarios, sets the company's offerings apart.
HP hopes to see a pay-off from its early RFID investments. The company has been involved in RFID pilot projects as it works to meet the January 2005 deadline Wal-Mart issued for its top 100 suppliers to tag pallets and cases shipped to its Dallas/Fort Worth distribution centre. In HP's case, the shipments are typically large items such as printers, giving the company valuable experience in item-level tagging.
HP said its partnership with BearingPoint was aimed at the retail industry. HP will focus on the infrastructure and hardware, while BearingPoint concentrates on business process consulting and systems integration to show how RFID can be leveraged throughout the supply chain.
"HP is uniquely qualified because it is at the item level already," said John Cummings, BearingPoint managing director.
Overby said the partner co-ordination promoted by the major suppliers was important to customers, many of whom wanted just "one throat to choke" as they ventured down the RFID path. "Clients are interested in seeing a major supplier take responsibility for the total outcome because of the risk."
HP and OatSystems are close to announcing RFID/IS, which combines their respective technologies to offer an RFID framework, system management, consulting and integration services in a single offering. OatSystems is also launching version 4.0 of its Foundation Suite, which includes three new products to help integrate data captured from RFID devices into enterprise applications.
One of the new products, OatLogic, is an integrated rules-based engine to configure and manage RFID business processes across devices such as readers and printers, and business applications such as warehouse management and ERP systems. OatXpress templates are aimed at helping users integrate RFID into pallet building, shipping, receiving and other common processes. OatAxiom is intended to help users manage RFID data captured from internal locations and data provided by trading partners.
OatSystems said Tesco, an early adopter of RFID technology in the UK, had chosen to standardise on its suite across the company.
Gartner analyst Jeff Woods said OatSystems had the most sophisticated middleware to handle RFID-generated data. He said the OatSystems suite was a development framework that allowed companies to build RFID data management into the application.
"People buy OatSystems for strategic use and strategic applications, which existing business applications could never support," he said.
Rival Manhattan Associates plans to announce its EPC Manager middleware, which allows users to take data from the readers and incorporate it into their business processes. The company quietly released an initial product a few months ago, but is now putting out a version improved through customer feedback.
Sun, another would-be RFID player, plans to formalise a partner programme around RFID and a new software tool kit that allows its partners to build common interfaces to the Java System RFID Event Manager and Information Server products released in July.
Sun RFID marketing manager Vijay Sarathy said Sun also planned to let customers use its RFID test centre in Dallas, which simulates Wal-Mart's receiving environment to make sure tagged items can be read in a high-speed production environment.
Sun is also working with SIS Technologies and SSA Global Technologies on RFID warehouse management.
Carol Sliwa writes for Computerworld