There's a point near the end of Mad Men's epic television run where, after seven Emmy award-winning seasons, a computer finally makes its appearance at the advertising agency of Don Draper and company. The episode is titled "The Monolith" (a veiled reference to "2001: A Space Odyssey") and in it we see an IBM 360 mainframe being wheeled in piece by piece, ultimately to take up an entire break room at the office. The requisite "ribbon cutting" announcement heralding the computer's arrival is met with a mix of optimism, skepticism and even fear.
RTLS: What's old is new
"Well we're getting a computer, it's going to do lots of magical things," quips the show's Roger Sterling. It's a comment served up with a heavy dose of sarcasm, but the writing's on the wall for the characters in the show—the future is now. That is to say, the future was then, back in 1969, as IBM was helping NASA to land humans on the moon.
As a viewer in 2015, watching the drama unfold on streaming video, it's easy to chuckle at the nostalgia trip of mankind marveling in reverence at computers the size of large rooms, light-years away from the processing power we now carry in our pockets. However, the more you think about it—and this is certainly one of the marks of great storytelling—there's a fundamental question being asked. Be it 1969, 1984, 2001 or now—has anything really changed?
I'm not talking about the computers, they've diligently been following Moore's Law all the while. I'm talking about their humans—or more specifically, human nature. Imagine it's the year 2061 and we're making a hospital drama set in the good old days of the early 21st Century. In one of our hypothetical episodes (in between the all the juicy, gossipy scandal between the characters in our show) the staff is gathered together and introduced to Real Time Location System (RTLS) tags. It's a moment met with a mix of optimism, skepticism and even fear. "Well we're getting RTLS, it's going to do lots of magical things," quips one of our characters. You know where I'm going with this.
Just as wheeling in a mainframe to an advertising firm in the 1960's wasn't some magic digital bullet, neither is slapping a bunch of RTLS tags on hospital beds and IV pumps and calling it a day right now in 2015. What good is a bag of nails and a hammer to a carpenter without the right blueprint? This kind of misguided tech faith has been described (controversially) by Evgent Morozov as "The Folly of Technological Solutionism."
How about we take a step back and get another perspective. Kevin Donahue is a founder of RFID TagSource, a New Jersey based company specializing in its namesake. According to a 2011 article in the Philadelphia Business Journal, Donahue started the company with his wife Shelley in 2006 with $50,000 in personal funds, and has subsequently seen revenues skyrocket over the last few years as companies have adopted Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology—a specific type of RTLS.
It's not only a great bootstrapped entrepreneurial tech story, but a testament to Donahue's belief in the future of the market, given that the company is built solely around RFID technology. Perhaps it's because Donahue has already weathered the RFID hype-storm of the 2000s, after Wal-Mart not only adopted, but strong-armed the market into adopting widespread RFID use, that he promotes his livelihood pretty much right down the middle, with honest to goodness statements like, "RFID is an enabling technology; it is not a 'solution'."
RFID has an important role in the future of the Internet of Things (IoT) in healthcare, but just as magic panaceas don't exist in medicine, neither do they in hospital operations. Donahue gets this, and he writes about it and other things as "The IoT Guy", a blog wherein he ruminates quite often on the subject. He recently blogged about Mainspring, citing the company for its solutions-based IoT approach in the healthcare space.
"What Mainspring delivers to their customers is a medical equipment asset utilization solution that leverages Internet of Things technologies including RFID tags and IOS devices hosted in a cloud environment that has proven to address an identified need in the healthcare industry. As time goes on any one of the enabling technologies, RFID, Mobile, or Cloud, could be swapped out without having a significant impact on the overall value of this solution."
Donahue is tech veteran, and both he and his digital nom de plume get that the future success of RFID is intrinsically linked with smart solutions centered on innovations in IoT. Slapping a RTLS sensor on every gadget in the workplace without a thorough solutions-based approach—that's like inventing the wheel and not the wagon.
It kind of makes you wonder what all those mainframe guys back in the day would have thought of all this. Of course, there were smart solutions then as well. Interestingly enough, while it wasn't quite as far back as the Apollo program, Donahue actually cut his teeth doing disaster recovery on those big IBM machines. If you haven't put The IoT Guy on your blog roll, do yourself a favor, it's proof enough that solutions exist in every era, just no magic bullets.