Is Apple About to Cut Out the Carriers?

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Sources inside European carriers have reported that Apple has been working with SIM-card manufacturer Gemalto to create a special SIM card that would allow consumers in Europe to buy a phone via the web or at the Apple Store and get the phones working using Apple’s App Store.

It’s rumored that Apple and Gemalto have created a SIM card, which is typically a chip that carries subscriber identification information for the carriers, that will be integrated into the iPhone itself. Then customers will then be able to choose their carrier at time of purchase at the Apple web site or retail store, or buy the phone and get their handset up and running through a download at the App Store as opposed to visiting a carrier store or calling the carrier. Either way, it reduces the role of the carrier in the iPhone purchase. Gemalto and Apple have not responded to requests for comment. I’m also waiting to hear back from other sources to get more details.

However, if Apple is doing an end run around the carrier by putting its own SIM inside the iPhone, it could do what Google with its NexusOne could not, which is create an easy way to sell a handset via the web without carrier involvement. Much like it helped cut operators out of the app store game, Apple could be taking them out of the device retail game. Yes, carriers will still have to allow the phone to operate on their networks, which appears to be why executives from various French carriers have been to Cupertino in recent weeks.

The Gemalto SIM, according to my sources, is embedded in a chip that has an upgradeable flash component and a ROM area. The ROM area contains data provided by Gemalto with everything related to IT and network security, except for the carrier-related information. The flash component will receive the carrier related data via a local connection which could be the PC or a dedicated device, so it can be activated on the network. Gemalto will provide the back-end infrastructure that allows service and number provisioning on the carrier network.

The model should work well in Europe, where the carriers tend to use the same networking technology and are far more competitive. It also means that customers can roam more easily with the iPhones, swapping out the carriers as needed. The iPhone has lost its exclusivity in much of Europe and other markets of the world, which makes this model a compelling one for consumers, but a nightmare for carriers. Apple could change the mobile game once again.

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