Mark Bridge writes:
The last couple of weeks have seen the ‘embedded SIM’ making headlines.
The term ‘embedded SIM’ has previously been used to describe non-phone equipment (such as netbooks and laptops) with a SIM card pre-installed in a built-in 3G modem. Technically the modem was embedded, not the SIM – but it looks as though genuinely embedded SIMs could be just around the corner.
The debate started in earnest last month, when it was rumoured that Apple was working with SIM card manufacturer Gemalto on an integrated ‘virtual’ SIM. Anyone buying the next-generation iPhone 5 would either choose their network when they bought the phone or would download an app to configure the device.
Although those rumours remain unconfirmed, the concept is still being talked about.
This week the GSMA said it’s forming a ‘task force’ of mobile operators to explore the development of an embedded SIM that could be remotely activated. It would mean that mobile operators wouldn’t need to supply physical SIM cards for new devices, making it easier to provision equipment such as smart meters, navigation devices and e-book readers with mobile broadband.
Devices featuring the new SIM activation capability could start appearing as soon as 2012, working alongside traditional SIM-supported devices.
In a statement, Rob Conway of the GSMA, said “The traditional SIM has been an important innovation in mobile telephony, and has provided many benefits to consumers in terms of security, portability of contacts, and ease of portability of devices across networks. As our industry moves from connecting phones to connecting a wide range of devices, it is apparent that the embedded SIM could deliver even greater flexibility. The embedded SIM will provide assured levels of security and portability for consumers, as well as provide additional functionality for enabling new services such as e-Wallet and NFC applications.”
Although the GSMA insists it represents the interests of the worldwide mobile communications industry, the SIMalliance – a non-profit industry association made up of the world's leading SIM card manufacturers – has expressed some concern on behalf of its members.
It’s emphasised that a user-removable SIM helps maintain an open and interoperable mobile communications marketplace, with users able to choose between network operators and mobile phones. It also says removable SIMs allow users to protect their personal information and restrict access to other applications, while also maintaining security for the network operator.
Although it acknowledges that the requirements for machine-to-machine communications will differ, the SIMalliance considers a removable SIM card is essential for personal mobile communications usage.
What’s going to happen? Well, it would be easy to look elsewhere for clues. After all, many cars no longer have an ignition key. Instead, drivers keep a ‘smart key’ in their pocket when starting the car. These smart keys have been adopted by major manufacturers – but they’ve not needed changes elsewhere.
Here in the mobile industry, the network operators are in charge of the roads. In fact, some would say they don’t have control of much else. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of devices the networks choose to support in the next few years. The ignition key certainly isn’t dead yet… and neither is the SIM card.