On Wednesday NXP made a seemingly routine product announcement about their new RFID chip designed especially for libraries – the reassuringly geeky sounding ICODE SLIX 2.

The press release doesn’t say very much about the reasons for the chip’s development, rather it concentrates on the improvements it will bring to library users of RFID technology. The more technically minded can download the full specification of the chip here.

The poor benighted librarian reading this announcement – which has been duplicated by the excellent Marshall Breeding on his website – will however probably be simultaneously confused and reassured. After all just about all the major players (in the UK RFID market at least) have made supportive and excited noises about the significance of the new product in the announcement – and I know from my annual surveys that librarians trust their suppliers above almost everybody else in the market (apart from other librarians) when it comes to RFID.

So why this post?

Well you can call me a sceptic (people do you know) but I take very little at face value and there are some threads running through this announcement that raise questions in my mind. Coupled with other information I received last week I’m beginning to wonder whether we’re about to see a realignment in the library automation world that we haven’t seen the like of since the birth of the Internet.

Let’s look at what the statement says and try and figure out what’s going on here.

After the usual “it’s all going to be so much better” messages we are told that,

“The SLIX 2 is fully compatible with existing ICODE library systems, ensuring that over 5000 public and university libraries already using ICODE SLIX and ICODE SLI based labels can migrate and benefit from the latest technology without difficulties”.

Which is good news for the 5000 (where ARE all these libraries, and how are they being counted I wonder?) but there will be many more libraries out there NOT using the ICODE family of products that won’t. Unlike most RFID users libraries tend not to replace their RFID tags – and their “product” lifecycles are significantly longer than in retail for example.

So the chances are that many libraries will still be using tags that even predate the existence of the ICODE family of products. An obvious point I know – but I know some librarians who will think that this statement means everything’s fine. When it may not be.

The next point that caught my eye was,

“In addition to improved scanning and reading capabilities the new SLIX 2 introduces near field communication (NFC) technology to enhance library services.”

Now THAT’s a really interesting way to present information that already applies to ANY RFID tag using 13.56 MHz tags (and that’s ALL of them in the UK by the way).  Regular readers will be aware that the potential for NFC devices (like smartphones and tablets) to be used to alter or delete data on RFID tags is something of an obsession of this author’s. It’s been possible for years now, what’s different is the recent surge in the number of NFC devices on the market. To me this sounds like spin – the implication that NFC has been “added” suggests that it hasn’t been possible before. But it has. For ages now.

What the data sheet will also tell you is that NXP are introducing a number of new features on this chip that will enable suppliers to password protect, and even kill tags. Librarians should consider two aspects of this news.

Firstly that this protection will only available on the new tags, and secondly that password protection may not be the answer to the problem because of the way in which libraries actually work (something frequently misunderstood both by RFID suppliers and manufacturers alike). Integration with an LMS might indeed be made more difficult if RFID suppliers start to manage additional aspects of the circulation process – and that’s one of the reasons for my opening, somewhat hyperbolic(?), remarks about change.

The last part of the announcement to which I want to draw your attention is this one,

“The new chips offer additional memory space to store dedicated URLs without compromising the library management memory areas. The URLs will point to internet spaces that contain additional information related to the book or media.

Sophisticated content, such as movie trailers, author bios, book reviews, and much more, becomes automatically accessible through NFC-enabled mobile devices as they tap marked areas on the books. “

Sound familiar?

Again regular readers (and those who have attended any of my conference presentations in the last few years) will be aware that I have long advocated the use of physical stock as a discovery tool for other resources. Examples of this obvious benefit already exist in libraries as far apart as Australia and Norway. By linking with a discovery system – or even an OPAC – library users can already enjoy the benefits of using books, DVDs etc. to discover author interviews or live performances for example (it’s already documented on this blog).

But the difference here is that the URLs that make this possible will be stored on the chip – rather than on a remote database which, in the light of the recommendations on user privacy in the EU’s mandate to standards bodies – M436 (as discussed at length on this blog and elsewhere), may be almost culpably reckless. The mandate isn’t only concerned with the data present on tags but also with what might be inferred from it. Someone carrying an item with a URL on it could easily be inadvertently advertising a personal or commercial interest to someone equipped with the right (and probably free) software on their smartphone.

So what to make of all this?

To me it all sounds like the RFID market has run out of existing products to sell to its traditional library market and has decided to take on the LMS companies for their circulation business.  It’s not a surprising development – the potential has existed for many years now, what was missing was a chip that could support the additional features that would make an entirely RFID based circulation solution possible. Until now.

Of course this is not an overnight process. First librarians will need to buy the new chips that make the reinvention of circulation possible.

I wonder what they cost?

2 Comments

  1. Does the extra memory space and the option to write additional data to the chip affect users that adopt ISO28560 standards? Obviously data can be written to the tag using the ISO standard format as usual, but will the additional data (such as URL’s) affect the overall conformity of the tag? Do we feel additional data should conform to a standard format as we possibly run the risk of having proprietary models for this section of the tag?…

  2. Not all RFID suppliers will use the new chip and those that do could use the additional capacity in a variety of ways. The development of the new chip appears to have been driven mostly by a single RFID supplier which presumably has a business strategy that will become clearer over the coming months. It is up to librarians to decide whether they want to invest in the new chips and to be very cautious about the impact of any new functionality on existing systems as well as ensuring they protect the privacy of their users. RFID just got a lot more complicated!

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