A SIM card and SIM tool.
MIKI Yoshihito

There was some potentially important news amidst Apple’s iPad refresh that you may have missed. It relates to Apple’s long-anticipated “soft SIM”, offering the ability to choose a service provider on the device instead of having to switch a physical SIM card.

This is a seriously muddy topic and there are far too many unanswered questions right now. The death of the SIM card could be a great thing, but much depends on how it is handled. Shrugging off carrier lock-in sounds good, but it may be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, if it means that we’re switching carrier control for Apple control.

What’s the Apple SIM?

Here’s how the Apple website explains it:

“The Apple SIM gives you the flexibility to choose from a variety of short-term plans from select carriers in the U.S. and UK right on your iPad. So whenever you need it, you can choose the plan that works best for you — with no long-term commitments. And when you travel, you may also be able to choose a data plan from a local carrier for the duration of your trip.”

It is limited to a handful of carriers in the US and UK right now (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and EE are onboard). It can also be switched out for a regular SIM card. But make no mistake; this could be the first step towards the end of the SIM card as we know it. It seems very likely that Apple will seek to extend this to more countries and possibly push it out on the next iPhone as well.

The history of the SIM card

SIM stands for “subscriber identity module”. SIM cards store an identification number (IMSI), a unique serial number (ICCID), security and network data, your PIN, and a PUK (personal unblocking code). They basically allow you to connect to the network that you have a service contract with and they identify you.

sim card vodafone
Jonathan Ah Kit

When the network monopolies were broken up and mobile technology began to take off, SIM cards were a way of ensuring that users could switch network without having to register the device. They also enabled MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) to offer service without having to build their own network by essentially hiring capacity from existing carriers.

You could argue that SIM cards gave users more freedom, making it easy to switch networks on a device by simply replacing the SIM card. The problem in the US, UK, and some other markets, was that the carriers offered subsidized devices and they weren’t willing to do this if customers were going to jump ship and use a different network, so they cobbled together a kind of compromise that locked devices and SIM cards down to a specific carrier for the duration of your contract.

What’s a soft SIM?

Apple’s idea is that you can select your carrier and sign up for service from a menu on the device itself. There’s no need to order a new SIM card and physically change it.

You may remember we took a look at this possibility back in March when we asked Are carrier-free SIM cards on the way? That article was provoked by a development in the Netherlands, but it was really driven by the growth of the M2M industry related to cellular connectivity in devices where it’s not easy or practical to change a SIM and an embedded SIM is used instead.

A soft SIM in the consumer market is an entirely different kettle of fish. There are a lot of different potential motivations at work here, but let’s try and break down some of the arguments about why this might be good or bad from a consumer point of view.

The good

Catching a hold of a SIM tray and wedging that card in is a minor pain at the best of times. If you manage to stick it in the wrong way, or the SIM card is dirty or damaged, it can become a major pain. Anyone who has cut SIM cards to deal with the new micro and nano standards will know the potential risks. It’s not an especially user-friendly system when compared to choosing your service provider from a software menu on your smartphone.

Not only would a soft SIM eradicate all that hassle for consumers, it would also remove a headache for OEMs. They’d still have to embed the chip somewhere, but they wouldn’t need to accommodate an opening port anymore.

In theory it could also free us to switch service at the drop of a hat. If it was possible to switch quickly via the menu and retain your number, you could switch frequently to get the best service and price. It’s also an ideal system to deal with the perils of roaming; signing up to a short term deal in the country you’re visiting would be far more cost-effective.

Coverage woes could be consigned to the past completely if it was capable of switching network on the fly to find the strongest signal. The billing could be handled by your OEM with carriers claiming their cut behind the scenes.

Perhaps you could sync your SIM across your tablet and smartphone, dispensing with the need for a separate service contract for separate devices.

The bad

Apple can potentially dictate which carriers appear on your device as an option for service. If soft SIMs were to roll out across the market then Google or your OEM could theoretically do the same thing. It seems very unlikely that they would be allowed to do this, but it could certainly give OEMs a lot more leverage with the carriers.

As it stands this Apple SIM can be replaced by another regular SIM card, which you’d need to do to get Verizon service, for example, because they haven’t signed up to it. If the future aim is to do away with the SIM card slot altogether, then you’re stuck ordering through the Apple menu system. What if the carrier you want isn’t listed?

What happens to dual SIM users, or people who like to use more than one smartphone? What happens when you want to switch device, sell your old smartphone, and take your number and service contract with you?

We could see the end of smartphone subsidies. If carriers can’t lock you in then they aren’t going to offer the same deals with little or no money down on a new smartphone.

Wait and see

There’s no telling right now how this is going to work out. Apple has been keen to do away with SIM cards for years, but Google and the Android OEMs have not shown their hand. This initial step isn’t necessarily perceived as a threat by the carriers because they are struggling to sell data contracts to tablet owners and this could help them do it. If Apple tries pushing the same thing with the iPhone there will probably be a lot more resistance.