The SIM card's identity crisis

OvumThe humble SIM card has attracted a lot of attention from mobile industry strategists in recent weeks. After years in which not much of interest has happened to the SIM, there has been a flurry of announcements, some of which have generated a certain amount of angst among network operators.
First, Apple was rumored to have been working with SIM vendor Gemalto to develop a “soft SIM”, which could be provisioned into its devices, and (most importantly) re-provisioned over the air, without the need to insert a physical card at all.
That an unsubstantiated rumor could generate so much heat is itself eloquent testimony to just how sensitive this area is. Then, as part of a parallel – or was it opposing? – development, the GSMA announced the establishment of a working group of major operators to create a specification for a soft SIM to support machine-to-machine (M2M) applications.
The SIM card has been the fundamental token of identity in the GSM system, and its successors, since the standard was unveiled in 1990. What worked well in the context of relatively few high-value customers on long-term contracts works less well now.
In some of the biggest and fastest-growing markets customers frequently change their mobile networks, in response to blizzards of promotional offers. With lifetime value almost a meaningless concept for customers such as this, the cost of purchasing and then handling a physical SIM becomes a significant burden for the operator.
Many operators are looking to the M2M opportunity as an important source of future growth. But the traditional SIM model doesn’t fit well here either, as M2M modules may need to be configured and tested at the factory but may then spend weeks or even months in a long supply chain before final active deployment.
The physical characteristics of the SIM are also an issue. Apple’s interest in a new model for the SIM might be part of a Machiavellian plot to supplant the operator as the primary provider of services, but it may owe something to the challenges of accommodating that little piece of plastic into a constantly evolving industrial design, which may be one constraint that the manufacturer would like to dispense with.
Multi-SIM devices weaken the role of the telephone number as a primary address
As an identity token, the SIM card is the vessel which holds the user’s IMSI, the number which the network uses for security and for billing purposes. Keeping the SIM ‘hard’ makes it easy to swap between phones, while staying with same operator. A soft SIM shifts the balance in the other direction.
The SIM is also the holder of the MSISDN – the user’s telephone number. This remains the primary address for voice calls and for text; but both of these may be properties of declining value. A variety of forces are conspiring to detach users from their telephone numbers. Dual-SIM and even triple-SIM devices mean that users are increasingly negotiating around multiple telephone numbers.
Perhaps more importantly, the cloud-oriented application model means identities and addresses do not reside on specific devices. We can sign in with our Google account on any PC with a browser, on a tablet and on an Android phone – simultaneously, if we want to.
Our messages appear on all three, and show as having come from the same account whichever device we use to send them. This is just as true for realtime and presence-based applications, including both location-based services and VoIP. The user’s FaceTime (Apple’s proprietary video calling technology) and Skype addresses are already independent of the phone number held on the SIM.
Attempts to turn the tables, and to use the MSISDN as the address for a host of Internet-based services such as soft phones, have been a conspicuous failure so far. Operators who wish to avoid the LEAN (low-cost enablers of agnostic networks) role should focus their energies on how to put themselves at the center of end-users’ federated identities, rather than worrying about the form factor of the SIM card.