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Summary:

Apple’s push for embedded or programmable SIM cards appears stalled by threatened carriers, but the GSMA is moving forward to research the use these chips. They may not appear in phones for some time, but there are other opportunities in web-connected machines and smartgrid devices.

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Last month, we broke the news that Apple was working with SIM-card manufacturer Gemalto to create an embedded SIM that could effectively bypass carrier control. Instead of carrier-specific data on such a SIM, for example, an embedded SIM allows for use with various operator networks and would be activated remotely instead of at the point of purchase for a device. In theory, a consumer could purchase an unactivated smartphone with an embedded SIM and later decide which carrier to use it with.

The GSMA, a worldwide consortium of telecommunications companies, lent credence to our reports last week by announcing the formation of a task-force to research the use of programmable SIM cards. The intent of the organization’s research is to set usage standards as early as this January, with the expectation that embedded SIMs will appear in devices starting in 2012. According to The Telegraph, a UK-based publication, carriers aren’t happy with the prospect of losing their direct customer relationships by way of embedded SIMs; some have reportedly threatened to cease phone subsidies to Apple if the handset maker continues its desire for embedded SIM cards.

The battle between Apple and the carriers may be over for now, although I expect this to be unfinished business between the two sides. In the meantime, embedded SIM technology represents huge benefits to the “Internet of Things” or web-connected machines, gadgets and appliances that are use the web in a near autonomous method.

Imagine you want a web-connected refrigerator that sends you a reminder text to buy milk when it realizes you’re running low. Would you want to contract with a carrier during the purchase of such a device, or would you rather have options to choose from? An embedded SIM would allow for the latter, and even better, enables easier network provider switching if you can find a better connectivity deal in the future. The same goes for smart electric meters that shoot your consumption data into the cloud, both for your own monitoring as well as your electric company to see. Do you really want to run outside to swap a SIM card if you change Internet service for your meter?

I suspect the carriers will continue to fight Apple in the embedded SIM war, but over the long term, it’s likely to be a losing battle. Other handset makers will see the same opportunity to own customer relationships that Apple does, and are sure to band together. If the largest telecom industry group sees benefit for embedded SIM cards in the growing number of web-connected devices, carriers may want to stop fighting and instead start figuring out new ways to prevent themselves from becoming dumb pipes.

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  2. To remove carrier influence and create competition for my dollars for a better plan, I’d happily pay more for my iPhone.

    Neuter the Carriers, Empower the customers!!!

  3. Hey Kevin,

    With your refrigerator example, why would you want it, or any home appliance, to be cell-connectible?? I agree that getting notifications such as low milk, or laundry finished, or fire alarm going off, on your phone/pager/brain implant would be a good thing, but doesn’t it make more sense to connect all home devices to a single connection for your whole house??

    I think I would rather have a single connection to my house and have everything share that connection.

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