Technology needs shake-ups every now and again, otherwise we’d all be lumbered with the command line and floppy disks, and Snake on a Nokia dumbphone would be the cutting edge of mobile gaming.
Sometimes, though, shifts in technology only occur when a company points out the obvious that somehow wasn’t entirely obvious to everyone at the time, and this may come with a side order of pain.
An example is the Apple SIM. Apple barely mentioned it at the recent iPad Air 2 event, and, as always, remains tight-lipped about any future plans. Right now, though, buy an iPad from Apple and you get a bundled Apple SIM. This enables you to choose from a list of carriers on board with Apple, theoretically enabling you to switch between them on a whim, without going through the hassle of getting and installing a replacement carrier-specific SIM.
The advantages are obvious. If you take your device overseas, you’ll be able to select from a list of local carriers and get online in seconds, rather than going slightly crazy in local stores, pointing madly at your device, while simultaneously thumbing through a phrase book and trying to figure out some kind of universal sign language for “I’d like a temporary pay-and-go SIM, please, dear merchant”.
The disadvantages are almost non-existent — at least from a consumer standpoint. If you’re a carrier, however, the Apple SIM looks more like an attack on your entire business model, because it wrests control further away from you and places it more in the hands of device owners.
Imagine their horror: a loss of income from roaming fees, and customers easily able to switch to a rival service in their location as and when they choose.
It’s perhaps for this reason that attempts by Stuff to get comments from UK operators have to date been met with barely more than stony silence; at the time of writing only a single UK carrier (EE) has signed on.
Meanwhile, in the US, AT&T is reportedly locking the Apple SIM to its network, rather defeating its purpose. (Somewhat petulantly, it also vanishes as a future option should you instead choose Sprint or T-Mobile.) Elsewhere, support is quite literally non-existent — this is a UK (barely) and USA thing for now.
Really, though, it’s what happens next that’s more interesting. What will carriers do if those on board with the Apple SIM end up getting a flood of new business, purely from being an option when someone fires up their shiny new iThing? And what if Apple deems its iPad experiment to be a success and then expands the Apple SIM to off-contract iPhones?
The end of the SIM card?
Fast forward a couple of years, and it’s conceivable to imagine iPads and iPhones that don’t even have SIM slots. Everything would be sealed within the device itself.
Naturally, people would continue to freak out, fuming carriers joined by a relatively small number of frothing users who swear by being able to choose from a collection of SIMs located about their person. But technology always marches on. We lost the floppy drive and the optical drive is not long for this world; elsewhere, computer and mobile hardware continues its inevitable shift towards ‘appliance’ — sealed units lacking internal expansion. Maybe the humble SIM is now also on borrowed time, set to disappear entirely.
This is perhaps a step too far, and Apple might be wiser to stick for a while with the more comfortable compromise of a replaceable Apple SIM. A modicum of extensibility and choice is always a good thing, after all, even if many people don’t take advantage of it; but decent default set-ups for the consumer are better.
Regardless, the Apple SIM could be a big win for everyone if enough carriers swallow their pride and embrace change — but, as ever, that’s a very big ‘if’.