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Why the e-SIM could be the killer feature of the iPhone 7

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SIM

Recent reports suggest that the humble SIM card's days are numbered, with an e-SIM alternative set to provide a significantly neater solution. But what exactly is an e-SIM and when can we expect to see one pop up in an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy?

From the day you opened up the box of your first feature phone (it was a Nokia, right?), you've been reliant on a little oblong piece of plastic called a SIM card to make calls and send texts.

This SIM solution is a clumsy physical way to get your generically built phone connected to a specific network in a particular country. But really, there's no good reason for them to exist, and they won't do for much long.

What is an e-SIM?

An e-SIM is an electronic SIM card. As the name suggests, it will replace the physical, plastic SIM card all current smartphones run on with a virtual embedded equivalent that cannot be removed.

It's been reported that both Apple and Samsung are in advanced talks with the GSMA to embed a standardised e-SIM card within future handsets.

The GSMA is the organisation that represents the interests of mobile operators around the globe, and according to the Financial Times it's set to announce a new e-SIM standard in the near future.

Besides the world's two biggest smartphone manufacturers, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Whampoa (owner of Three and soon O2), Orange, Telefónica (the current O2 owner) and Vodafone are also said to be on board.

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Will the next iPhone and Samsung Galaxy phone feature e-SIM card support?

Easy operator switching and more flexible roaming

An e-SIM is non-removable, simply because it doesn't need to be removed. With such an embedded standard, the idea is that you can switch to a new operator without having to insert a specific SIM card. It's all done through software.

The network data that a standard SIM card carries will be rewritable on future e-SIM devices, so all you'll need to do to change operator is make a phone call or two - rather like when you arrange to bring your phone number across to a new network now (though hopefully even easier).

Another advantage will be when travelling. It will be much easier to switch to a local network if you're going to be spending any great amount of time abroad - particularly useful when travelling outside the EU, where roaming charges can be extortionate.

No dodgy adapters

The other problem with physical SIM cards is that there are currently two or three sizes in play.

Have you ever tried swapping your iPhone for an Android phone, or vice versa? Very often, they use different types of SIM entirely. This necessitates the use of an ugly and flimsy plastic adaptor, or else an entirely new SIM, neither of which is ideal.

Let's not even mention the agony of requiring a hairpin-like SIM tool to access the wretched things, or the sharp edged alternatives you have to come up with when you invariably mislay them.

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SIM

You'll need a new phone

As this new e-SIM will be an embedded standard, it means that no smartphone in existence today will benefit from it. Nor, we suspect, will any phone released within six months or even a year from now.

The aforementioned FT report reckons that the first e-SIM device could be a year away, which has led many to conclude that the iPhone 7 could be the first SIMless phone to hit the market in September 2016.

That sounds like a good bet to us, given Apple's previous experience with SIM-less technology...

Apple already offers something similar

Apple has already offered us a glimpse at what an e-SIM might entail.

Last year's crop of new 4G-enabled iPads, led by the iPad Air 2 but including the iPad Mini 3, incorporated something called Apple SIM. This is an entirely software-based SIM, which offered the freedom to swap operators at will.

Or rather, it did so in participating countries. The whole problem with the e-SIM concept isn't the technology, which has been viable for some time, but the cooperation of all the various parties - and that includes networks as well as manufacturers. That's where the GSMA's soon-to-be-universally-accepted e-SIM standard comes in.

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iPad Air 2

It'll mean smaller phones

Whatever the first e-SIM phone is, the chances are it'll be slimmer for not having a physical SIM card inside it.

Given that physical SIM cards are very simple in function, they're primarily made up of useless plastic - the actually SIM part is that thin strip of golden material you see on one side of it. This means that doing away with SIM cards will free up a fair amount of extra space.

It's not just the space occupied by the SIM itself, but the housing, reader, and tray mechanisms that support it. With space at an absolute premium in modern smartphones, and every millimetre counting, the e-SIM will help bring about even slimmer phones.

Are you excited by the prospect of e-SIM cards? Let us know in the comments section below.

iFrank

July 21, 2015, 11:23 pm

Been a long time overdue!
It has been obvious to most of us, I believe, that a carrier could send an OTA signal to individual phones to allow their use on a network. They all have individual numbers, that's how phones work!

As you stated, the problem relates to co-ordination and getting agreement across countries but I wonder whether Ofcom ever took any interest, I suspect the answer is in the negative.
I also can't see why it would not be possible to provide service to both the simmed-up and the simless, , , , , sim - ulltaneously : - )

PGrGr

July 22, 2015, 4:17 pm

Its beyond me why they need a SIM at all. The SIM itself doesn't communicate with the network. It just provides a bunch of settings. Why can't they be stored in the existing memory of the phone, in some sort of SIM app, if you will?

Maybe someone can explain?

Prem Desai

July 23, 2015, 6:25 am

In terms of technology, there's nothing new - existing technology can be used. This could be a good move for the hardware manufacturers as they will no longer have to incorporate a SIM card.

For the consumer, there is almost zero benefit. In fact, this is a massive step down. Now, you will be completely at the mercy of your service provider. Today, if your service provider doesn't play ball, at least you can remove their SIM and use another until the issue is resolved. With this, you can't.

Also, there needs to be a global change in working practices for activating SIM and timescales (has to be near-instant).

Better still, there should be a global SIM that can be used in any country. This is more than Apple can chew (but if any company was going to get the ball rolling, it would be Apple).

I'm not looking forward to this tech coming ......

North Lodge Durban

July 24, 2015, 11:36 am

Dont throw away your sim phone yet: It is very likely that a smart tech company will develop a "roaming" sim. This could be a chip that would fit straight into the slot for your existing sim card. This chip would allow you access to chosen networks in the same way as the esim would. And you would never need to remove or change the sim again. I would be very surprised if this technology is not developed ahead of or concurrent with the coming esim phones

Abraham Ravara

July 31, 2015, 11:50 am

this is advantage for the network caries but dis advantage to the shop who cell a phone.

Saks

August 8, 2015, 12:59 pm

Not excited by e-SIM. Any changes led by Apple inevitably lead to obsolescence of millions of tech devices. Not good for the planet.

Adrian

August 19, 2015, 1:20 am

Nice dreams!
Just because theoretically sounds that you can swap what operator you want that does not mean this actually works. Apple will have to connect with each operator OTA platform. Such infrastructure doe not exist and operators are not interested. Each one has a SIM lock policy etc. They have been trying to do it for the M2M but even on that the world is split in between alliances. T-Mobile announced the M2M ESIM a year ago - still not launched. It made sense for Apple for the tablet because it eases their logistics. They did not do it for the consumer.Google is trying now with Project Fi - another one that will fail .. but they have a different approach trying to give consumer the best option but not to give the consumer necessarily the option to switch or allow them to use whatever SIM cards in whatever country. They only support 2 operators and it took forever to get there.

Simon Duberry

September 1, 2015, 5:29 pm

The Korean LG Urbane LTE has an embedded sim; also news unfolds about a Samsung Gear S2 smart watch on the horizon. Hopefully in the future I will be able to use the LG Urbane LTE with carriers in the UK

Jon Hoffmann

January 19, 2016, 1:16 pm

Hi the mechanism needed to swap is specified by GSMA
http://www.gsma.com/connectedl...
that standard is ready to deploy, and it is not complex - but it will take some months before all operators are ready.
I think we are beyond dreaming.

Dr Attgc

March 1, 2016, 9:03 am

it does actually communicate with the network through the phone baseband chip. Basically the network requests an encryption key, the phone sends the data to the SIM card, the SIM card signs the data, and then returns it to the phone which then relays to the network.

Dr Attgc

March 1, 2016, 9:05 am

you are somehow assuming that esim will only work with one operator profile which it doesn't. CDMA phones have one "serial number" and if the operator didn't play ball that was it, your phone was a brick.
Esims are different, there will be several profiles in each esim and nothing stops you from deleting your current profile and getting a new one. It will be exactly the same as now. Instead of removing a sim card and putting in a new one you would then be removing a profile and adding a new one instead.

Dr Attgc

March 1, 2016, 9:07 am

things aren't that easy. SIMs aren't passive chips that simply store settings. SIM cards are actually one of the most secure cryptographic chips in the civilian industry. SIMS store encryption keys that are only known to the carrier the SIM belongs to. Replacing SIMs with virtual sims requires a lot of work and that's why it's not an obvious change as simply sending settings OTA.

Craig

March 18, 2016, 4:18 pm

I LOVE SIM CARDS! I have been on GSM phones for 8 years and I love how I can take my SIM card and put it in another phone and not have to to deal with all that activation nonsense.

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