The new Nano SIM standard has been approved and is used in the iPhone 5 after a fierce battle between Apple and the other vendors but as frequently happens in technology, this standard will become old by the time it is adopted by the masses. No, there are no talks (yet) to replace it but its probable successor – the embedded SIM standard is gaining more and more popularity. Don’t worry, if you haven’t heard about them – many industry insiders haven’t either because this concept is still new and used in only experimentally at the moment.
Mini SIMs, Micro SIMs, Nano SIMs, Embedded SIMs – What Else?
First, before we go into the specifics, let’s have a very brief look at what other kinds of SIMs exist. The first SIM cards launched in 1991 were the size of a credit card. From today’s perspective this is huge but since then mobiles were pretty bulky so the size was deemed acceptable.
As technology improved, the industry was able to develop a mini-sized card slightly bigger than a thumbnail that has become the most widely used SIM card standard today. There hadn’t been adoption of new standards until the Micro-SIM was introduced into the iPhone 4 as Apple started to lead the way.
The next generation of SIM cards are the so-called Nano SIM cards. Earlier this year, the Nano SIM standard was approved and as you probably guessed, Nano SIMs are even smaller than micro SIMs. Again, backed by Apple as the technology for the iPhone 5, this type of SIM is thought to be the one that takes over.
Following on from this progression of technology, embedded SIMs, or the fourth form factor, will be even smaller than Nano SIMs. Yes, it’s supposed to be but this isn’t the main thing about embedded SIMs. Unlike the others, they are not removable because they are embedded in the device itself.
What Is an Embedded SIM?
The concept of embedded devices is not new in the technology industry. M2M (Machine-to-Machine) communications have been around for decades and nobody disputes their advantages.
Also, much like computer motherboards that over time integrated more and more chips that once used to be separate cards (i.e. sound cards, LAN cards, and even the CPU itself), there is a trend in mobile devices to integrate more and more functionality onto the main device itself.
SIM cards are removable units – you can pull it out and put it into another handset. With eUICC (Embedded Universal Integrated Circuit Card – the full name of embedded SIMs), all this is gone and you get a device with the SIM integrated inside so you can’t take it out or replace it.
This doesn’t sound very convenient and it isn’t – at least not for end users who will have one more obstacle to overcome when they want to change their device or their carrier.
You might be wondering why embedded SIMs are being designed because from what we have already told you, they are not convenient at all. However, they are aimed to serve a higher purpose than simply connecting your mobile with the carrier. They are meant to create the “The Internet of Things” – i.e. a network where you connect various devices such as mobile phones, smartphones and tablets but also cameras, eReaders and other sorts of electronics (even ovens), thus adding wireless connectivity. For such an environment, embedded SIMs are more than perfect because they don’t require human interaction as the card can be managed remotely. However, for mobile phones this is a major drawback to take all the control from the user.
Right now the standards for remote management are not fully developed yet and it is hard to predict what powers will be left for users remotely or locally but let’s hope when these standards enter a more mature phase, they allow lots of custom programming of the chip.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Removable SIM/Embedded SIM
It is too early to summarize all the advantages and disadvantages of embedded SIMs as compared to removable SIMs because it is almost certain embedded SIM technology will change a lot by the time it gets mass adopted in practice. However, here are some pros and cons of embedded SIMs that will most likely be true even in ten years:
- Embedded SIMs are great in all cases where unattended connectivity is needed (i.e. for devices not operated by humans) and not so great for cellular handsets where humans want to have more control.
- Remote management makes it easier to administer SIMs and decreases costs.
- They open new possibilities that didn’t exist so far, such as remote reading of utility and other meters, security cameras, etc.
- They are smaller in size. This is a pro for hardware vendors because it leaves them more space in the device for other components and also helps to make mobiles thinner and smaller.
- Presumably, embedded SIMs will be cheaper. The difference might not be huge but all equal it is expected that embedded SIMs will cost less to produce.
- Embedded SIMs are easier to use. Though inserting and taking a removable SIM out certainly isn’t rocket science, there are always users who are intimidated by this. For them, it will be much easier with embedded SIMs because they won’t have to mess with the card at all.
- You can’t lose it. When the SIM is firmly stuck to the phone and you can’t take it out, the good news is that you won’t be able to lose it unless you lose the device itself.
Embedded SIMs have their perks but their disadvantages can’t be ignored. Here are some of the major concerns the industry and users have:
- Embedded SIMs lead to lack of choice and flexibility. When you get your phone with the SIM embedded in it, you have no choice – you either take it or leave it. The embedded SIM could seriously limit your choices of operator, though in practice this is not likely to happen because of all the regulations regarding competition and portability. However, since we as consumers have seen pretty often how our rights are abused by corporations and this is what makes us fear them, embedded SIMs won’t be an exception and our choices will be limited despite all the legislation that protects us. What is more, if the embedded SIM somehow gets damaged, you will have to throw the device away. Of course, this isn’t much different from the case when your phone itself gets damaged and you have to throw it away but since we are used that the phone and the SIM are separate, we won’t like. Just accept that the SIM card is just another chip in the phone and similarly to the other chips, if it gets damaged, the phone needs to be serviced, or in the worst case – thrown away.
- Embedded SIMs could lead to huge bills, if their traffic can’t be restricted. This is more of a concern about SIMs embedded in products that aren’t administered by humans than about mobile handsets where you can simply switch it off, but if these devices can’t be programmed to regulate their traffic and they are always on, you might be unpleasantly surprised by the bill.
- Roaming and SIM rentals might become impossible. Again, depending on how embedded SIMs can be programmed, it might turn out that you are practically stuck with your operator. I don’t believe law will allow this but as I already mentioned, corporations have their ways of bending legal boundaries. My favourite saying is – if there is a will, there is a way – it is not impossible to make embedded SIMs operator-independent and let’s hope that standards will make this a mandatory feature.
- Security concerns are too big to be neglected. Probably it is just some sort of paranoia to perceive embedded SIMs as less secure but again, as with the other disadvantages, this problem can be solved with the help of software. With the right programming features embedded SIMs can be more secure than removable SIMs.
- No branding opportunities for mobile operators. Mobile operators are the ones that oppose embedded SIMs most and the reason is much beyond the inconvenience that these cards will deprive them of the opportunity to put their logo. Though this is hardly the biggest deal because there are many other opportunities for branding and advertising in general, basically these cut branding opportunities are a negative for operators.
Embedded SIMs are a work in progress and standards are not fully developed yet. You can bet that some of the issues will be addressed and solutions will be found. Most likely all these issues will be solved via the software that is on the embedded SIM together with the remote administration capabilities it supports. With the right programming abilities, an embedded SIM can be no different, or even much better, in functionality than a removable SIM, so it is too early to worry the world will end when removable SIMs are replaced my embedded ones.
How Embedded SIMs Will Affect Users and the Mobile Industry
The effect of embedded SIMs on the mobile industry will be substantial. While end users might not even notice the change, this won’t be the same for mobile operators, mobile device vendors, and above all – for SIM card manufacturers.
For SIM card manufacturers embedded SIMs might be bad news because they could mean the end of business for them. On the other hand, it is possible that mobile device vendors subcontract a SIM manufacturer rather than make embedded SIM chips in-house, so there is hope that SIM manufacturers won’t become obsolete.
Mobile device manufacturers are the biggest winners here. With embedded SIMs they get a new business, more control over the device, and more flexibility to use the space inside the device as they please. This is why it is hardly surprising that mobile device manufacturers, most notably Apple, are the main driving force for the change.
Mobile operators aren’t very enthusiastic about the idea because it could spell trouble for them. I already mentioned the cut branding opportunities but this is hardly their biggest worry. What worries them most is if they will lose control. It all depends on what will be programmable in an embedded SIM. If an embedded SIM offers automatic manual switching of networks, which is very easy to do with software, mobile operators will frown for sure because they could lose clients easily.
It’s not surprising that mobile operators support SIM lock – this keeps their clients on a short leash. If software in embedded SIMs gives users the option to change network with a click, operators’ interests are hurt. As a last resort, mobile carriers can boycott embedded devices on their networks but this is basically declaring war, so they will hardly do it, unless they are really threatened by the software abilities of embedded SIMs.
As for users, they generally embrace the idea of embedded SIMs because they hope this will open new doors to them. Again, the attitude depends entirely on what software capabilities will be available in the embedded SIM. If it is easy to change operators, or even pick from a pool of networks in a given location based on which one offers the lowest tariff, users will like the change for sure.
Embedded SIMs are still a disruptive, rather than a mainstream technology and it is early to tell how they will change the industry. When there is more clarity about what can be programmed on these cards, it will be easier to tell how they will impact the industry. The good news is that software can control them, so many features that are available as hardware only today (for instance dual SIM phones), could be done with the help of software at much lower prices.
There are already devices on the market that come with embedded SIMs and there are networks that already use them, so the time when embedded SIMs will be widely used isn’t far. The key point here is what will be programmable on them and the way in which they are introduced to the market.
Most likely, there will be a couple of years of coexistence between removable SIMs and embedded SIMs because all the phones that currently use removable SIMs won’t be replaced overnight but in the next 5-10 years it is more or less certain that embedded SIMs will be used a lot. Of course, it all depends on how you can program them and let’s hope standardization authorities make it mandatory for embedded SIM manufacturers to offer a rich assortment of programmable options and make SIMs really smart.