Thursday, March 22, 2012

A standard procedure. Will Apple play its cards right in the battle of the nano-SIM card standard? Ante up boys.


Never watch sausages, laws, or telecommunication specification being made: it could get ugly.

The standards creation process is as much about politics as it is about technology and interoperability. Some companies play that game, others decide to go their own way when possible. And for Apple, proprietary has often worked so well.

Considering their incredible influence across the wireless telecom ecosystem, Apple has never been big into standardization. If the mobile industry were a game of poker, the level of standardization participation would be a solid tell about a company’s hand. But Apple isn’t so easy to read, and may even bluff at times.

Back in 2004, if my memory serves me correctly, I noted to anyone that would listen that Apple was a member of the CDMA Development Group indicating that Apple was not only developing a handset, but almost certainly working with Verizon to create a CDMA phone. But when Apple finally showed their hand, it was a GSM phone that would change the industry. What a flush.

While Apple has been very active within the World Wide Web Consortium driving its influence in HTML5 standardization, in more traditional telcom spec making bodies, Apple tends to be a no-show. So stories about the on-going battle for thew new nano SIM-card standard within ETSI are significant.

Subscriber Identity Module cards are no small matter. There are more than four billion SIM cards in active use across the globe, and most GSM and 3G network users have one. Heck, in dozens of markets the average high-end subscriber is likely to have several. For operators, SIM cards act as a secure identity link to their customers. Going forward, SIM cards are likely to get smarter and play a key role in secure mobile commerce.

The debate about the new nano SIM pits Apple against classic ETSI members such as Nokia and Motorola. Apple’s proposal would require a tray to hold the new smaller SIM card. Clearly that would work well for Apple-designed devices, but would handcuff other vendors. Nokia, among other, argue that Apple’s nano-SIM design could confuse users by thinking the new cards could be inserted into existing spring-loaded SIM slots, an argument which certainly has validity. (I can only guess that iPhone and iPad users tend not to switch SIM cards too often.)

In sticking with a poker metaphor, Apple has now upped the ante by promising that if their nano-SIM card proposal is accepted as an ETSI standard, it would offer a royalty-free license to others (Apple offers “an unequivocal commitment to grant royalty-free licenses to any Apple patents essential to nano-SIM.”) Given the potential volume of SIM cards is in the billions, this is no nano offer and could alter the stakes, especially for SIM card makers and operators.

Some are questioning whether Apple is playing a fair hand in the game. Apple has registered several of its subsidiary companies as voting members in ETSI. But to be fair, this strategy is not unprecedented at the spec-making table.

Later this week we will learn the winners and losers in this card game. Do tell.

“Dogs playing Poker” by C. M. Coolidge. Standards making can be a dirty game.
In making the new nano-SIM card standard, will anybody call Apple’s bluff?

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