back to article How iPad’s soft SIM lets Apple pit carriers AGAINST each other

The SIM card is the most potent instrument of control in the mobile carrier’s hands, controlling the relationship with the customer and giving it unmatched information about how its users behave. The humble SIM has enabled mobile operators to assert control over important areas which were not initially in their kingdom, such …

  1. Peter 48

    Isn't that the very same sim that AT&T managed to lock down to their service requiring to you to get a new one if you want to switch?

    1. dogged
      1. dogged

        thumbs down for annoying facts. I understand. It's okay.

  2. Lee D Silver badge

    I agree that a SIM in an embedded device is probably on the way out. They serve little purpose now and there's no reason we can't replicate what they do in software or some embedded chip. We don't even bother trying to save our numbers to them any more, instead using cloud services and the phone storage themselves which are infinitely more useful in what / how much they can store.

    The problem is that I imagine when SIMs start to go "soft", the EU etc. will step in to make sure that they offer the same service as before - i.e. being able to block SIMs and being able to move your SIM between carriers easily. And, like the USB-charging debacle, Apple will no doubt try to wheedle it's way out again.

    Losing the SIM card in GPS trackers, home alarms, phones etc. is no loss. In fact, SIMs are so ubiquitous that it tells you that yourself. I got at least 8 from giffgaff after I signed up the girlfriend and myself and they still keep sending more when we get rid of those to friends and family. And bootsales, newsagents, etc. are full of free ones. At this point, carriers are throwing a ton of money at printing millions of the things and then most of them never get used, so they're probably quite glad to go to a soft-SIM.

    The problem I see? A soft-SIM will be even more hackable, to those interested in playing with them. But at least you might be able to have a dual-SIM phone without having to buy some stupidly expensive foreign piece of junk to do so.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      We should be thankful that SIMs are on the way out.

      Hopefully this means the end of SIM lock and network lock. Personally I think the EU should make phone locking illegal.

      1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
        Thumb Down

        Personally I think the EU should make phone locking illegal.

        You don't have to buy a locked phone. Of course, when you buy an unlocked one it is at full price since the carriers can't rely on the lock to recoup their subsidy. By banning locked phones you'd be asking the EU to make us all pay full price, do you really think that will fly? Most people aren't bothered by a 12-month lock if it gets them a new phone cheap. Leave the choice up to the consumer, not the EU nanny.

        1. TechGuy456

          Not entirely. When you buy a subsidised phone, you also sign a fixed term contract, often 24 months.

          Being able to swap out the sim during that time won't remove your obligation to pay a monthly fee to the network. The network won't mind being paid for a service you are not using.

          Plus, if you are using another network during that time, you are paying twice.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Actually devices with software SIMs would have to be completely unhackable because the operators stand to lose so much (free connectivity or connectivity billed to someone else). Any device with a software SIM will have to be unrootable and unjailbreakable, or stop connecting to the network if it's rooted or jailbroken. By which I mean that it would have to take several years to break the protection, by which time people have lost interest in the device.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "if it's rooted"

        I would refuse to have an unrootable phone. How could I install a proper adblocker without rooting?

  3. Timmay

    I thought going the soft-SIM route violated the requirements of GSM certification, or something? Or have Apple managed to work out (bribe/convince/blackmail) these issues with the relevant authorities?

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      They've been working on it for quite a while...

      http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/22/iphone_sim/

      This story also has the "back to the drawing board with their tails between their legs" quote but the GSMA set up a task force anyway. Operators could just say no but they are too desperate to subsidise the next iShiny.

  4. frank ly Silver badge

    Explanations please?

    "The humble SIM has enabled mobile operators to assert control over important areas which were not initially in their kingdom, such as security, Wi-Fi access (via EAP-SIM authentication) "

    The three Android phones that I've owned have all happily connected to Wi-Fi with no SIM card in the phone; in which case they become small Android tablets. How is it different if I have a SIM in the phone? Have I misunderstood something there or is this only about the iPhone?

    "... for a technology which enables SIM cards to switch identity automatically ..."

    Is this actually a 'technology' or is it just a set of protocols and behaviours that anybody 'skilled in the art' could have thought up and something we could have had years ago if the telcos had been willing to work and cooperate with each other?

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Explanations please?

      It means you can automatically log onto hotspots which have agreements with your network operator if you find yourself without network coverage. Using those hotspots comes out of your data bundle or is charged to your next bill instead of you having to fish out a credit card and create a user ID.

  5. Semtex451 Silver badge

    "it seems that only iPads bought from the vendor (Apple) itself will sport the new SIM card"

    The folks at John Lewis don't agree.

    1. KroSha

      As opposed to buying it from EE or some other carrier. John Lewis and other resellers carry exactly the same stock as Apple Retail. Only carriers get locked stock.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Only in America

    The rest of the world is not held hostage by 3 mobile companies.

    "notably when the latter launched its first Nexus model, selling it only via a special website on which customers could choose a carrier plan."

    Also, I don't believe this to be true either. The Nexus has always been SimFree, both inside and outside the US, you buy your phone and then get a carrier plan elsewhere.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Also, I don't believe this to be true either.

      Yet a quick Google/Wikipedia search reveals: Google offered T-Mobile US and AT&T versions of the phone online in the United States before closing the online store in July 2010

      Anonymous for a good reason it appears.....

    2. king of foo

      Re: Only in America

      Hmmm... it's almost as bad in the UK; we can go

      1. T-Mobile/Orange/EE

      2. O2/Telefonica

      3. Vodafone

      4. 3 (because Antioch)

      Um... that's it! Everyone else piggybacks off one of the above. I also think 3 may have ties to Orange, sorry EE, but I could be making that up. They aren't really a 'big player' but they are 'a player'.

      I've had crap service from all 4 of the above, and as middlemen like phones4u appear to be doomed, news of anything potentially damaging to the power of the big 3 (or 4) brands gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Telecoms in general make me uncomfortable. We talk ill of google, ms and apple re privacy, but DARE we shine a light on telco's???

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Only in America

        "... news of anything potentially damaging to the power of the big 3 (or 4) brands gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside."

        That's going to be a lot of their problem when things get sticky. They've spent so many years stitching up consumers by delivering poor network service, infinitely poorer customer service, shoddy tactics and 'gotcha' pricing on anything they can, that most people will enjoy dancing on their graves - even if they realise that their demise may not in the end be beneficial in any number of ways. I can't think of many industries other than the music businesses who have tried so hard for so long to alienate their customers.

        Data on non phone devices has hardly moved the last few years and is just stuck at 'expensive and inflexible', and the appeal of being able to walk away from a network provider is obvious when there's a decent chance they won't deliver anyway. For a lot of consumers, delivering a swift kick to the networks soft bits while doing so will just ice the cake.

  7. David Paul Morgan

    I'm still surprised...

    ... that Apple, Microsoft and Google have not already bought out their own GSM networks.

    For a soft SIM to be really useful, it must be fully open and, yes, let the service providers compete fairly and in a more open way.

    The changing size of SIM cards is already restricting users flexibility - I don't have particularly fat fingers, but have you tried swapping micro- and nano- SIMs from one handset to another?

    Plus, I previously found having a dual mini-SIM android handset really useful - one for me, one for work, so I would hope that any 'logical' SIM 'address' would allow you to have your main number/services AND your secondary/work service, with sensible seperation of services, address books etc.

    The SIM card having your contact numbers used to be useful, until address books became better - and now in the cloud, so why not get rid of the 'card' itself. The GSM organisation MUST make sure that no single vendor exploits this unfairly.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    let me get my crystal ball out..

    This might all back-fire on Apple. Let me string a few 'ifs' together....

    If Apple uses soft sims in it's phones, then the MNOs wlil stop subsidising them (why subsidise a product which might not use your network and you can't guarantee will bring you profit).

    If the MNOs stop subsidising Apple phones, then customers will have to buy them at full price (£600+), probably direct from Apple.

    If the MNO's stop selling Apple phones directly, then they won't have to sign up to the ridiculous Apple terms which force them to bulk pre-buy phones, therefore tying up less capital in boxes in warehouses.

    If the customer has to fund the full cost of a phone, then they'll probably look around for cheaper offers and possibly turn to subsidised (and therefore cheaper) Android phones.

    The market share for Apple will reduce immediately, plus people might not be so quick to upgrade next time around at full unsubsidised cost. Apple will have a smaller market share, and will therefore be less able to push the MNOs around.

    The UK mobile phone market is different to the US one, so it's possible that they might not bring soft-sims here. It's interesting times for the mobile operators, and I can't see who the long-term winners and losers will be.

    1. ukgnome Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: let me get my crystal ball out..

      "This might all back-fire on Apple. Let me string a few 'ifs' together."

      Doh, silly - that would be

      if if if if if if if if if

      or maybe

      if-if-if-if-if-if-if

    2. Chad H.

      Re: let me get my crystal ball out..

      >>>>>If Apple uses soft sims in it's phones, then the MNOs wlil stop subsidising them (why subsidise a product which might not use your network and you can't guarantee will bring you profit).

      Not necessarily. If the soft-sim still allows for the device to be network locked, as current iOS software does, there is no change to the operators experience.

      >>>>If the MNOs stop subsidising Apple phones, then customers will have to buy them at full price (£600+), probably direct from Apple.

      Devices in the Apple store are already unsubsidised, and they have the highest sales per square footage of anyone.

      1. tangerine Sedge

        Re: let me get my crystal ball out..

        >>>>>If Apple uses soft sims in it's phones, then the MNOs wlil stop subsidising them (why subsidise a product which might not use your network and you can't guarantee will bring you profit).

        >>Not necessarily. If the soft-sim still allows for the device to be network locked, as current iOS software does, there is no change to the operators experience.

        Fair point, but defeats the point of a soft-sim. What happens if you can unlock the sim via software?

        >>>>If the MNOs stop subsidising Apple phones, then customers will have to buy them at full price (£600+), probably direct from Apple.

        >>Devices in the Apple store are already unsubsidised, and they have the highest sales per square footage of anyone.

        Some punters currently buy unlocked at Apple stores, but I suggest (with no stats to back it up) that many more are bought subsidised on contracts. I think there are lots of buyers out there that can afford £30 a month contracts, but can't afford to splash out £600 in one go.

        P.S. I never said my Crystal ball was infallible...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: let me get my crystal ball out..

          "... but can't afford to splash out £600 in one go."

          Or just want to, even if they can afford the outlay. Thats one of the real habit of the modern age; pushing paying the bill back so it just doesn't feel as painful. I know an awful lot of people this fits, especially on mobiles. Its not so much the cost of a phone up front they can't stomach, but the 'extra' cost of an eye wateringly pricey one that is harder to justify.

  9. Dr. Mouse Silver badge

    Bad, but could be good

    I will say from the off, I think this is a bad move for consumers. Apple will have complete control over which network you can use their device on. You can't just pop in a SIM you picked up from the news agents. You can choose from Apple's list of partner networks, i.e. networks which agree to pay Apple.

    On the other hand, I believe soft SIMs could be good, if and only if they are operated in a fair and independent manner. They would reduce wastage and allow quicker switching. To do this, I believe they would need to be administered by either an independent party, or under a regulated world-wide standard.

    I doubt it will happen any time soon.

    1. cs94njw

      Re: Bad, but could be good

      I think you're right. Apple will probably instigate "premium" contracts in the same way it has premium cases, usb cables, etc - 10 times more expensive because it's Apple branded.

      But I LOVE the idea of easily being able to connect to a provider in another country. When I've been abroad, I've known that a local SIM is probably much cheaper and functional than my British one, but I get nervous about buying one and all the complications. Being able to browse a list and pick one would be much easier.

      Although if the operators sorted out their roaming support in the EU...

      1. Chad H.

        Re: Bad, but could be good

        >>>>I think you're right. Apple will probably instigate "premium" contracts in the same way it has premium cases, usb cables, etc - 10 times more expensive because it's Apple branded.

        I see it going the other way - iWorks, iCloud, iPay, etc keeping you in the Ecosystem.

      2. Can't think of anything witty...
        Stop

        Re: Bad, but could be good

        I think that you are wrong with regard to roaming. I'm in the UK and my network lets me use my included minutes, texts and data* when i travel to some European countries** for no extra cost***

        The network that I am on was the first to do this, but as i understand it, it is actually piece of EU legislation which is pushing all of them to stop charging stupid amounts of cash because you are suddenly 50 miles south east of Dover.

        when i went to Italy earlier this year, it made a real difference. Other people in the group spent a significant amount of time looking for free WiFi and worrying aobut call charges. I just used my phone and had a good time...

        anyway, i digress. Sure, being able to swap sims to get a cheap local deal might be good, but just being able to use your bundled miutes/texts/data when you are away is so much better (particularly if you are just going for a week or two).

        * OK - so my unlimited data plan was restricted to 1GB for the week that i was out there.

        **OK - not all european countries, but quite a few with more being added and a few outside the EU as well (such as the US).

        *** Nope - no extra at all. and i didn't pick some expensive tariff with roaming options, I'm on a rolling 1-month SIM only deal for £14/month

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What everyone seems to forget is that the technology has been around for years to put multiple profiles on a SIM, but the problem is one of security and ownership. A SIM card contains a number of secrets related to the network encryption. Get those secrets and you have lost most of the security on the air interface which makes it a lot easier to do bad things(tm).

    As a result telcos like to own the SIM as they have control. Once a 3rd party owns the SIM people get scared. The Gemaltos and G&Ds of this world have had multi IMSI and OTA reprogrammable SIM tech for years and it is being rolled out in a number of devices. But having a 3rd party control both the SIM and the network selection is very new. Technically its 10 year old tech, but requires a lot of trust.

    At the end of the day you need an IMSI to connect to a mobile network, and only Telcos are allowed IMSIs so Apple, whilst having negotiated something that seems impossible are really only brokering a modified PAYG deal.

  11. Slx

    This sounds like Apple wanting to be able to curate a list of operators that can choose from.

    I like the idea of a SIM card. It gives the end user total control over which carrier they want to use.

    The SIM lock isn't anything to do with the SIM card. It's just a way of removing normal SIM functionality to reduce competition.

    This seems like a move that will end up with Apple and their partnered carriers having absolute control over your device and it might potentially exclude disruptors like small MVNOs that aren't Apple Approved Carriers.

    Spinning this as giving consumers more choice is utter nonsense.

    The carrier's SIM card can be removed and replaced by any other carriers' card. It's the device's SIM lock that prevents that, not the technology behind the SIM card which was designed to allow ease of movement between carriers.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I like the idea of a SIM card. It gives the end user total control over which carrier they want to use.

      except when my relative visted Spain for 2 months this summer & none of the operators wished to issue a SIM for her iPad Air 1. we tried boutiques in Alicante/Valencia for movistar, vodafone, orange and yoigo

      I queued up, spoke slow italian as my spanish is not very good, the shops were not in the slightest bit interested to offer me any product. I was planning next year to try the supermarkets' "Tarjeta Carrefour Internet Móvil Prepago" but possibly with the Apple universal SIM I might be able to sign-up online, hence having (slightly more) control as an end-user over which carrier I wish to use!

      1. Slx

        Spain is weird like that. You've got to produce passports, proof address and have all that photocopied to get a prepay SIM.

        It was easier to get one in China!

        Where as here in Ireland getting a SIM works like this: Hello! Can I have a SIM please? ... Here you go... Would you like me to top that up for you?

        Aspects of Spanish bureaucracy seem to still be a throwback to the dictatorship era. It's odd as they're really, really laid back and liberal about most other aspects of life.

        You'd probably still have to do all that to activate your Apple virtual sim.

        It's to do with not allowing you to be anonymous online or on the phone, nothing to do with the technology or the shops.

        Subscribing to a domestic ISP requires your passport or Spanish National ID number too.

        1. James 51 Silver badge

          Probably more to do with clamping down on burner handsets than anything else. Or at least that will by why the laws covering that were introduced I bet.

          1. Dan 55 Silver badge

            No clamping down (apart from the bureaucracy needed to get a PAYG SIM), it's the fact that he turned up without a copy of the paperwork they needed in his hand and they would have had to make an effort to communicate so they couldn't be arsed.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              We had all the documents, but the issue was zero interest to talk to a wierd foreigner! So I never got to show the docs. I know that slow Italian works as a half reasonable comms method to Spanish as it worked very well in Peru, even got permission from the Alcalde of Aguascalientes to bathe Machu Picchu in microwaves for a year, or at least I think he agreed :-)

              I already own lotsa 'blank' re-programmable SIMs for my GSM openBTS, so I didn't even need a SIM, they could've just written my Movistar Ki down on a post-it note & that would've been fine with me.

              I'll spend the €5 at the Crossroads ipermercado on my next visit, €1.21/100MB/day is better than my current EU €3/day. ( and is slightly cheaper than a fruity Air-pad2 )

        2. fandom Silver badge

          "Spain is weird like that. You've got to produce passports, proof address and have all that photocopied to get a prepay SIM."

          They passed that law about 5 years ago

          1. Dr_N Silver badge

            France too

            French operators turned off all the anonymous SIMs about ~10 years ago.

            As an anti-terrorism/anti-organised crime measure. (But in reality it's because France is a bit of a Police state.)

            Concerning the attempt to convince us that SIMs are no good:

            What happens when your phone goes down and you need to use a spare?

            Currently you pull the SIM, slot it in a spare phone et voila!

            What's the procedure going to be for "Soft" SIMs if you want to quickly swap phones?

  12. Jim 59

    SIM

    "The SIM card is the most potent instrument of control in the mobile carrier’s hands, controlling the relationship with the customer and giving it unmatched information about how its users behave."

    No. The SIM is the most potent instrument of control in the *consumer's* hands. It keeps the mobile sector competitive, and stops the suppliers from simply farming us in the same way the UK utilities* do, for example. Carriers and manufacturers would love to kill the SIM, which has made the consumer king for over 20 years. This isn't Apple's first attempt to break the market by issuing non-standard kit. They can shove it, frankly.

    * for those outside the UK: the gas/electric consumer sales here are an apparent cartel, there is no market or competition. Vendors are in complete control, and consumers are simply gouged.

    1. Sir Lancelot

      Re: SIM

      "Carriers and manufacturers would love to kill the SIM, which has made the consumer king for over 20 years."

      You might want to talk to the GSMA about this. They actually fiercely object to the idea of a soft or virtual SIM according to them for security reasons: http://www.gsma.com/connectedliving/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Embedded-SIM-Toolkit-Oct-14-updated1.pdf

      And as mentioned before: for mobile devices it's not about the hard, soft, virtual or embedded SIM (the vehicle). It's about the IMSI and the encryption keys (the contents of the vehicle) stored on the SIM. In the large majority of countries currently only mobile network operators and mobile virtual network operators are allowed to issue IMSIs which are preprogrammed into the SIMs and distributed to the network users. There is no particular good reason why IMSIs should be controlled by M(V)NOs. Only very recently the GSMA has released an architecture and standards for "Over The Air" reprogramming and switching of IMSIs on embedded SIMs because they were pressured to do so by the growing M2M community that does not like its devices to be tied to a specific M(V)NO during the typically long contract period. Mind you there currently are no wide-scale implementations available of this OTA embedded SIM nirvana.

      By the way: in the past the GSMA also opposed the idea of the OTA SIM reprogramming!

      One other thing: the currently launched Apple iPads still allow you to replace the Apple SIM with the SIM provided by an operator of your choice so make sure you target your arrows at the proper villain. It's a bit silly to condemn Apple for something they might be able to do in the future I think. Predictive crime analytics at work?

      But there is hope: maybe in a number years from now babies will be born and will come with an embedded SIM and IMSI supplied by 'fill in whatever organisation or company you dislike and/or distrust' which can then be linked OTA or good old dipswitches with its preferred M(V)NO ;)

  13. James 51 Silver badge

    Imagine blackberry balance with soft sims.

  14. JFrost

    Natterbox

    Natterbox have had this functionality for some time now. It's under there Global SIM packages. This is hardly a new bit of technology

    1. Tom Maddox Silver badge

      Re: Natterbox

      Who?

      (My point with that snide response being that it's not major news when some no-name company cranks out a niche piece of technology; it is major news when, say, Apple does it.)

  15. DaveO

    Report by Cnet that says this may not always be the case with the Apple stores locking things down again on their new Ipads at least. This is what happened before with the phones I can remember unlocking my old Nokia as I put a Go Sim International sim in. So why go back to locking things?

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