I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but some events today have catalysed me into action.
I've regularly been using the term "Tyranny of the SIM Card" in meetings and at conferences for the past few months. I'm fast being converted to the idea that the SIM is a relic of the 1990s, and deserves to play little (if any) role in the future of mobile telephony, except for the most basic prepay low-ARPU mobile-only unconverged services.
Don't get me wrong, there are some good things about SIMs. They can be transferred between handsets, they're secure, and they have enabled some OK-ish first-generation data services. I bought a bunch of local SIMs in Africa over Xmas to make cheap local phone calls. Easy to distribute, and proven technology. The problems occur when you start trying to "converge" products and services from multiple sources. I own my PC & laptop, I've got a couple of "vanilla" handsets knocking around, my consumer electronics are my own and so forth. If I worked for a large company, I'd have a wide variety of bits & pieces of comms & IT kit that are owned or leased by the organisation.
The SIM is essentially "a service provider on a chip". Which is fine for authenticating you against things that are standalone services, like basic mobile voice on a basic phone. But much less good in instances where there are multiple parties involved in security - your IT department, your broadband provider, your digital TV supplier, or indeed you yourself.
I'm never going to have a SIM in my TV set. Or a SIM in printer, or my home broadband WiFi router. They're mine, they're not subsidised, and I don't want them "registering" with a service provider before I can use them. Similarly, I don't want a SIM embedded in a laptop, as it turns it from being a computing "product" into "part of a 3rd-party service". Sure, if I use a cellular broadband data card, I might use one, so long as I don't have to have branded & clunky operator-specific software cluttering up my device UI.
Clearly, the more advanced FMC services cannot rely on a SIM in everything, especially in the typical multi-person, multi-service providers, lots-of-consumer electronics household. Thus the fixed-line equivalent of IMS, ETSI's TISPAN architecture, allows non-SIM devices to be connected. And if you won't get SIMs in everything in a converged service.... then why bother to have them in anything?
But what's really convinced me of this is my experience today. On Friday I wrote about my nightmare experience getting a new phone & plan from Carphone Warehouse. Well, the helpful guy's promise held true, and I had my new phone delivered this morning. Only without the new 3G SIM the invoice suggested ought to be in the box. Cue another round of IVR and customer service hell. In the end, rather than wait for another delivery, I got them to credit my account with the cost of a replacement SIM & arrange to pick one up from my local store.
Observations? Both the customer service rep and the sales guy in the store were confused & asked me if my old (2G) SIM didn't work in the phone, as that should suffice. I had to point out that the new phone is 3G, and that therefore a 3G SIM might be useful if I was to access the new & wondrous services promised by the marketing people. "Oh, well it only gives you access to videotelephony" was the helpful response. Eventually I persuaded the guy to give me a new 3G SIM, after pointing out that there were in fact some technical differences between the SIMs, even though they were the same shape.
(even more amusing is that on CPW's receipts, they still refer to O2/Telefonica as BT Cellnet. The invoice says "BT 3G SIM" )
I now have to have the new one's IMSI registered. There will, apparently, be an indeterminate time between my old 2G one ceasing to work and the new 3G one being activated. Between 2 and 24 hours. Useful, eh? So business contacts, friends etc go to voicemail if I'm lucky, or get lost in the ether in the intervening period. What idiot thought that system up?
I mean, when I part-exchanged my car earlier this year, my dealer didn't have to tell me to re-register the new key for 6 hours with the DVLA (UK car & driver licensing authority)? I gave him the old key & car, and drove off with the new one. When I download a new version of the Skype software, it doesn't need a lengthy re-registration period. Replacement credit cards work instantly, perhaps sometimes with a phone call to confirm receipt.
This is a theme I'm going to come back to, because I reckon I'm one of the few who's really stood up and said that the SIM Emperor has no clothes. No, I'm not sure what to replace it with yet - but I'm sure someone will have a smarter idea than the current dinosaur-on-a-chip.