The Apple Sim - Its a Bad thing

Fri, Oct 17, 2014 8-minute read


Lots of people are getting excited about one of the features of the new iPad Air 2 - The Apple Sim, its being pitched as a single sim card that allows you to switch carriers as you please, I suspect that under the hood its a special kind of multi profile sim card that actually contains profiles for each carrier, or possibly even allows new profiles to be loaded over the air.

At first glance this seems like a good thing, and at this stage it probably is, however its the first step on the road which leads to a bad place. The SIM Card, or to give it its proper title the “Subscriber Identity Module” its one of the great inventions of our time. This little bit of plastic holds the keys to access a network, which in turn hosts your identity. Everything is self contained into the one thing, of course on its own its pretty useless but when you insert it into a phone (aka Mobile Equipment) then things happen.

Now most people hate their carriers, and rightly so, generally we have a limited choice, the only time we hear from them is when they send us a bill and the only time we talk to them is when somethings gone wrong, its hardly the basis for a loving relationship, so at first glance it looks as if Apple are abstracting away that relationship by giving us a single sim that can jump carriers all from the comforting warm glow of our iPad screen, no fighting with the spotty sales drone in the local High St for a new sim card.

However lets stop and think for a moment, where does this lead? Well right now you’ve got an Apple Sim in your device and if you want to take a plan from one of the ‘Blessed’ carriers (which as of today is T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T in the US plus EE in the UK) then life is pretty good, of course thats so long as you want one of their ‘iPad Plans’ if you want to do something a bit different and maybe take a plan thats supposedly for a MiFi then you’ll still have to swap the SIM, or if you want to use a carrier other than the ones on the Apple SIM agin its swapping the SIM time. Ok No biggie you haven’t really lost anything, YET….

But this is just the start, this Apple SIM is mostly likely a multi profile sim, that is one physical card that has multiple virtual sim cards loaded onto slots on it, either at the time of manufacture or possible via Over The Air updates, think of it like a VM for sim cards, if its the OTA option there’s probably also a bootstrap SIM profile which will be a connection paid for by Apple with some random small telco somewhere in the world just for the purposes of downloading your ‘proper’ subscriptions, likely this is someone like Manx telecom or Jersey Telecom, these guys are small and agile yet have roaming agreements with pretty much everywhere. Now once Apple have got more carriers on board with this virtual SIM then things can move onto phase 2, where the SIM card slot disappears and its just the Apple SIM, fixed to the board, permanently inside the device, and your only options are the carriers (and their plans) that have gone through the approval process.

Now as my Learned Friend Mr Terence Eden points out in his post a while back this puts Apple in control. Now I don’t quite have the same feelings towards Apple as Terence does, and TBH if Apple are the ones controlling things thats the best possible outcome of this scenario. What worries me is that we are taking something which is very much in the control of the user (e.g. moving a card from one device to another) and moving it into the cloud of carrier internal processes and systems.

As I mentioned before, people like to bitch about their carriers. But, for all the gripes about their network and signal people have most of the real painful issues arise when trying to deal with their Business Systems. The stuff that provides the pipes (generally) works and when it doesn’t its either down to underinvestment/overselling or its a fault (which happens), however the billing, provisioning and customer management systems cause users real pain, just look at the twitter feeds of any major carrier to see what customers are complaining about, device unlocking not happening, incorrect billing, unable to close down accounts properly… What makes you think they’ll be any better at activating and deactivating virtual sim cards? Today if my carrier breaks everything with my account I can at least go to the shop, buy a new SIM card with £10 credit on it, pop it in and be up and running again, to me thats a small price to pay versus spending hours on hold and being passed around the call centre trying to work the system. So Risk 1 is that the carriers back office systems get more control over your devices connection.

Ok lets assume that you’re the lucky ones and your connection goes through as you requested in a timely manner, well what about if you want to do something that someone in a carriers marketing department has decided they don’t want you to because its not as profitable? Telecom is a strange beast and there’s a whole series of posts in that alone, but lets just recognise for now that because of this complexity there exists opportunities for savvy users to play the system, in its basic form this is a type of arbitrage****. The reason that dual sim phones are so popular in emerging markets is that carriers offer differing deals with cheap rates in certain scenarios, ph course they’re not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, it’s a loss leader. The business case was built arounf the idea that what you loose on SMS you’ll make back on voice, however the cunning end users are using your cheap SMS and playing that off against another carrier thats loosing on the voice prices in the hope of making it back on SMS.

Its not just emerging markets where this exists, the iPhone in the US is a classic example, for years AT&T wouldn’t offer a prepaid data sim for the iPhone, they did have a prepaid sim with data called GoPhone, but for reasons known only to themselves and their stock holders they didn’t want you using that on the iPhone, I remember as a visitor the the US going into an AT&T store with my basic Nokia and saying I wanted a GoPhone sim for that, then going next door into Starbucks and putting that SIM in my iPhone, all because of dumb business rules that said I couldn’t have that SIM for an iPhone, of course the sim worked perfectly in the iPhone and I used it for my entire trip.

And even if you don’t want to ‘shop around’ and get the best deal there’s plenty of examples of where carriers have refused to allow you to use a certain device on their network because it hasn’t made its way through their process, this example just last year where Jeff Jarvis wanted to use his Nexus7 on Verizon but they wouldn’t give him a connection, despite proving that it worked fine if he moved the SIM from his ChromeBook. All because of Business rules, nothing Technical.

How many people have had issues with getting their phones unlocked by the carrier, especially if you’ve got a locked phone and no longer have a contract with that carrier, technically they could give you the unlock code but because of their business process and broken systems they can’t create one,  so you have to go thorough some charade of getting an account just to get away from them.

The sim allows you to move devices freely and easily, heading to a festival for the weekend? pop the sim out of your expensive battery hungry smartphone and drop it in a cheap Nokia which will go for days and survive a dip in the festival toilets. Not with the embedded sim, instead you’ll be on the phone to your carrier trying to get them to send a message through their systems to move your subscription over, and how quick will that really be? Then you’ve got the same fun and games to swap back on Monday morning. And what happens when they realise the cost of all these calls, they’ll introduce ‘business rules’ that only allow you 4 swaps a year or something…..

Now let me make something clear, I’m not saying that any of the above scenarios would happen with the Apple SIM, but please understand that this leads to a place where your carriers have more control over how you use your devices, and history teaches us thats not a good thing, the separation of hardware from connectivity should be like Church and State, yes they need to work together but don’t let one control the other. Its not the technology thats the problem here, that could work really well, but the user experience will be ruined by the business processes, geeks be careful what you wish for!

(image credit MIKI Yoshihito