Do you want a side order with your SIM?

As electronics keep getting smaller and smaller, a SIM card, which once was a very small platform, now starts to become too large for the electronics it hosts. As a consequence, many actors are thinking about adding various add-ons to SIM cards.

We have seen quite a few of them lately, so let’s take a look at the current offer, starting with the oldest ideas ((I haven’t named the companies providing the technologies, but they are fairly easy to find)):

  • Add a memory card.This is one of the oldest ideas around, related to all kinds of MegaSIM approaches, offered by most card vendors these days.
  • Add a banking card. The idea is here to offer mobile banking without having to certify the SIM chip/application itself. The idea is quite smart, but it faces significant logistical issues.
  • Add a Zigbee interface. The idea is here related to convergence, since Zigbee mostly is a home automation interface. It allows a phone to integrate seamlessly in a low-cost home network, and to use it as a controller for our environment.
  • Add a WiFi interface. This one is the first of three items whose goal mostly is to level the field between mobile phones. By putting a WiFi interface in the SIM card, a network operator can get a level field and deploy a WiFi-based offer.
  • Add a GPS. With such a SIM card, every phone becomes GPS-enabled, allowing promising location-based applications to be deployed.
  • Add an accelerometer. With such a SIM card, every phone becomes GPS-enabled, allowing promising location-based applications to be deployed.
  • Add a NFC interface. This is not exactly SIM-based, since an external antenna is required. Globally, the idea is the same as with WiFi and GPS: compensate on the SIM card the problems of the mobile phone.

For the last four features, the core business model is to provide an interesting feature to (old, low-end) phones that don’t have it. Sales pitches always sound interesting, because there seems to be a good business model for all of these things, usually based on the line “With our SIM, [choose your category] applications become available on all phones, even the oldest ones”. However, an iPhone has all the features, and combines them for its best applications. If you add a feature on the SIM, you will still miss the others. And also, in two years from now, you will get a new phone with all the nice features, but you will still carry the same SIM, with the now useless feature.

The other cases sound more interesting, because they add to the SIM a feature that is unlikely to be present on a mobile phone.

Adding more memory (even gigabytes) can be extremely useful if you need to store some data (or even some applications, for instance if you have a Smart Card Web Server, or if you have a NFC phone). However, because SIM cards have a longer development cycle, there will always be a steep price premium for embedding memory on SIM cards. So, the idea may be good, but it is only as valuable as the content that can be stored on the memory card.

Adding a banking card can address a very difficult issue faced by mobile banking and other applications that required security certifications. The development cycle of SIM cards is rather short (usually under a year), whereas the development cycle of security-certified cards is closer to two years. Therefore, it is possible to develop a security-certified SIM card, but it is much more diffcult to develop a security-certified up-to-date SIM card, including all the latest options and gimmicks. By embedding a separate banking card with the SIM card, the idea is here to remove that problem, by certifiying the security-sensitive card, while integrating it with a SIM card of the latest generation. However, having two cards make some other things more difficult: the cards will not share any memory, they are likely to use different keys, etc. In addition, there will be an additional cost, and the business model is not necessarily better.

Adding a Zigbee interface also is quite interface. Zigbee is a wireless protocol that is used in various applications, and in particular in home automation. By including a Zigbee chip, the SIM may allow the mobile phone to become a wireless command for home automation. The idea is very appealing to me, because Zigbee is just asbent on mobile phones, so this SIM card brings real additional value. We can imagine this SIM being bundled with a home automation offer provided by a mobile operator with a partner. The main issue that I see here is the most generic one for SIM cards; SIM Toolkit applications are now rightfully considered as having a poor interface, and many frameworks don’t offer any other way to access a SIM card from a mobile phone. For instance, JSR-177 remains widely unsupported on Java ME phones, and the situation is not better in most application frameworks.

This last remark is not good for the Zigbee SIM, and it is not good either for any SIM that includes a feature that must be used from the phone. As a smart card guy, I really, really, don’t like that situation, but there is not much that I can do to promote the access of the SIM from mobile applications.

2 Comments

  • I agree with you that the options of adding Wifi, Accelerometer and GPS would not be that interesting to be added to the sim.

    I dont think that a price of such high-end sim will be enough to motivate a low-end user to buy it and have a low-end mobile with cool sensor but poor UI, instead of buying already a high-end mobile device. The low-end users do not seem to spend that much even with services that are already on the sim (such as WIB or S@T browsing).

    But those can be quite interesting in the M2M business, as the sensor or wireless communication channel is closely coupled with the SIM and, therefore, can assure the security of the data.

    For the banking case, it seems to me much more of a lobby problem between companies. For the life-cycle, can’t we consider adding a SIM application to the banking card? It would take as much time (or maybe a little bit more) to the bank. But concerning security it is much better then a few J2ME or other mobile banking apps, and in reality it is the same sim card providers that issues the cards for both banks and telcos.

  • That’s a very good remark. I clearly focused on the “classical” GSM market, in which the SIM card is inserted in a handset. For the M2M market, there may be much more interest in having an extra feature.

    In particular, the WiFi connection may be particularly interesting, especially in environments where GSM connectivity is not readily available, since WiFi may be cheaper to access. It also brings opportunities for the SIM card, outside of is traditional market.

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