The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has decided the next standard for the Subscriber Identification Module or SIM card that handset users will be using going forward. True to form, all we really know is that the new card will be forty percent smaller than the current micro-SIM. While the technical documents are only available to ETSI members, the Financial Times and the Verge have been following this issue, which has had more than enough twists and turns to be worthy of an American soap-opera or a reality television show. Back in March, it was reported that American tech giant Apple was proposing one standard and Nokia was championing its own proposal along with Motorola and RIM. The original nano SIM draft proposal that started it all by the inventors of the SIM card Giesecke & Devrient, which was designed to be backward compatible with an adapter appears to be lost in the jet wash of the handset makers dog fight.
What is this SIM card of which I speak? The grossly oversimplified version is that it is the key to identifying your mobile phone on a cellular network and provisioning it for the level of services that you subscribe to. Why do the handset makers want a smaller SIM card to start with? Speculation about any sadistic pleasure the companies may vicariously derive from the thoughts of millions of users, especially international travelers, struggling with swapping (and losing) an even smaller card aside, the handset makers want a smaller card to be able to claim a little more space out of the same form factor. Most carrier see a chance with a smaller SIM card to squeeze a little more battery into the same size handset. The advent of the LTE standard and more powerful and larger smart phone screens make packing as much battery into a case as possible a priority. That is part of the reason Apple broke with the dominant mini-SIM standard (everyone in the industry calls such cards “SIM” cards) in favor of the long on the shelf micro SIM specification with the iPhone 4. Like many things Apple does, the move spawned an industry tray adapters and made cutting down mini SIM cards a new iPhone user skill for international travelers. The ETSI is the non-governmental organization that sets and governs the standards that all the mobile phone wireless carriers, handset makers and other interested parts of the industry work under. Call it an industry group that makes the rules by which the game is played. Despite being Euro-centric, it effectively sets world wide standards. Because if is a private organization and the cost of joining are prohibitive for anyone not in the industry, the deliberations and proposals are not public and what information has come to light has done so via leaks, a recent CITA interview and some public statements.
As it stands right now, between media reports and a sour grapes press release from Nokia, it appears that Apple’s offering, carried the day. However, it may not have been Cuppertino’s original proposal but a slightly modified version tweaked to insure that it is even less likely that the nano-SIM can not be inadvertently jammed in the slot. Nokia’s proposal, which was apparently technically superior to the Apple offering (and also believed to have been tweaked), but by all accounts would not have been compatible with prior generations of SIM as the gold contacts were in different locations. Also the card is designed to be clipped in, which is one the major sticking points with Nokia who wants to do away with the SIM tray concept altogether. People familiar with the matter indicate that even Apple would have agreed that their proposal was incremental at best but was concerned about the new standard gaining quick and widespread adoption.
The lead up to the vote that was apparently held 31 May, was filled with conflicting information that, on one hand, the final standard would be voted on at the next ETSI meeting 1 June in Japan. However, stories also indicated that the body was voting “by correspondence” during May and the results would be announced any day. Bolstering this vote by post rumor was Samsung. Apparently Apple and Samsung discovered that there was actually a tech venue where the companies were not crossing swords and Samsung acted immediately to correct the oversight. According to The Verge , article Samsung had appealed to the ETSI alleging voting concerns and the efforts that some of the parties were making to add new members to the body and thus “game” the vote. A more cynical view might be that Samsung believed that the Apple proposal was winning and would require Samsung to deal with Apple yet again on intellectual property issues despite Apple assuring the ETSI that if any Apple patents were used in the 4FF (4th form factor) standard Apple would make them available royalty free. The appeal was denied.
Unlike the Micro-SIM standard, we will probably see nano-SIM cards straightaway in new handsets. Had the issue been decided in March, it could have surfaced as soon as the next generation iPhone, but at this point time is probably too short for the new Apple smartphone.