31 Oct 2014

Apple SIM

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but not on Android or anything mobile-related, and these are my own views.)

The Apple SIM is a smart idea, and one that no one was expecting.

The idea that you need a piece of hardware to sign up for a service is outdated. Imagine if you needed a SIM card to access Gmail, and if you lost it, you could no longer check your mail.

Imagine if you could access Gmail from only one device at once. Why can’t all the devices I have access the cellular data network? I’m already paying for the data, effectively for each MB consumed. Compared to wifi, and compared to online services, cellular networks are stuck in the past.

Getting rid of hardware SIMs means also getting rid of different sizes and incompatibilities. When I switched to an iPhone last year, I had to get my full-sized SIM card cut down to a nano SIM. And when I switched back to Android recently, I had to buy an adapter to fit the nano SIM into a micro SIM slot.

I also had to upgrade my SIM yet another time when my carrier introduced LTE.

And this required making multiple trips to the Airtel store, which isn’t fun. Not just the hassle of driving in Bangalore traffic, but also that of dealing with Airtel, being told that they neglected to tell me what documents they need for a SIM card, and making me go back, and so on. Requiring a person to physically go somewhere to sign up for, or continue using, a service is dumb. Imagine if you had to go to a Google office to sign up for a Gmail account.

The Apple SIM is also a step towards treating the carriers as the dumb pipes they are and should be. Let them present their plans in the Setup screen, and I’ll choose whoever gives me the best speed or price or whatever else, right from the setup screen.

This will force the carriers to simplify their plans and pricing. I think carriers, among other industries, make the plans complex, partly to prevent people from being able to compare them against their competitors, knowing what you’re getting and how much you’re paying for it, and being able to pick the cheapest or otherwise best option for you. There’s no room for such games in the iPhone Set up screen. Just tell me how many GB of LTE data you’ll give me, and how much you’ll charge me per month. Period. Spare me all the marketing bullshit, hard to navigate web sites, multiple kinds of plans and add-ons and options and offers, and so on.

Apple is smart to introduce the Apple SIM in stages. If they shipped iPhones without SIM card slots, no one would buy them. Instead, they’re shipping them with a SIM card slot, and an Apple SIM in it. If your carrier doesn’t support the Apple SIM, you can always put in a traditional SIM.

Or if you use an Apple SIM and choose AT&T (assuming you lived in the US), the SIM card becomes locked to AT&T. Which is still better than making the user go out and buy an AT&T SIM. You can always buy another Apple SIM if you want to switch carriers. Apple is smart to be flexible, rather than uncompromising here. Anything is better than the status quo of having to get a SIM card for your carrier. Indeed, being too aggressive with the Apple SIM means that it will completely fail, if the carriers reject it. Such an ambitious effort can happen only in stages.

I look forward to the next stage in making the carriers dumb pipes — a future where, instead of merely signing up for a relationship with a specific carrier from the iPhone settings screen, I’ll have the option of paying Apple or Google for service, and they’ll get me service from whichever network is fastest or cheapest. And this can even change as I move: if I’m in a neighbourhood where connectivity from my primary carrier is slow or spotty, the phone can use another carrier’s services in that neighbourhood. Imagine being connected to one network at home, and another at the office, and a third when you’re out. It’s just a network. There’s no reason to be married to only one network.

This also applies when I travel to another city or state where a network doesn’t exist, or is slow. For example, I use Airtel in Bangalore. If, when I go to Vizag, Airtel doesn’t have LTE or even 3G there, instead of falling back to EDGE, my phone can connect to another network. And without suffering an extra roaming charge, which is yet another excuse for the carriers to rip me off. I see no reason to be married to a single carrier.

This works will traveling internationally, as well. No need to have to research carriers in every country I go to, and have to buy a SIM card and set it up, wrestling with APN settings and the like, and making sure I don’t lose my primary SIM card. Not to mention that in a country like the US that has poor public transportation, getting to a carrier store is a challenge in itself.

Instead, a future version of the Apple SIM will automatically connect to the fastest or cheapest network no matter where I am, whether home, office, Vizag or San Francisco.

It’s exciting to see Apple take this first step towards this future of making the carriers the dumb pipes they are and should be, a future of less hassle, less time wasted dealing with your carrier, fewer non-transparent charges, and better service at a given price (or, equivalently, paying the least for a given level of service). This future can’t arrive soon enough [1].

[1] One problem is government regulations in countries like India that require many documents to be submitted to get a SIM card. But these regulations are anyway bad. The stated aim is security, but I suspect surveillance is a bigger reason. This is all the more concerning in a country like India, where the government is often predatory. It should be a fundamental right to have privacy in your communications. You should be able to buy a SIM card as easily as you can a packet of potato chips, without any documentation or identifying information. And that includes signing up via Apple SIM.

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