Apple unveiled new gadgets on stage today, but they didn’t discuss one of its most interesting new innovations – the Apple SIM. As detailed earlier by TechCrunch, the new SIM card lets you switch between participating carriers, which include AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint in the U.S., and EE in the U.K. So far, those are the only carriers who have signed on, but Apple is likely hoping more follow suit once they see customers appreciate a choice in short-term data providers.
It works by allowing you to choose a service plan from one of the participating providers without having to go to a store, show ID or even get off of a tarmac at an airport – so long as you have a signal. That’s a huge advantage even in the U.K., where signing up for a pre-paid data plan is as easy as using a vending machine just outside the gate of your arriving flight; it still represents more friction than waking up your iPad and choosing a plan, even if only because you have to physically remove and swap SIMs.
As for the carriers not on Apple’s list of supported providers, there’s no technical barrier preventing them from participating – Apple is very clear that there’s only one model of cellular iPad this time around, with enough LTE bands to cover most networks in most markets. It’s much more likely that the reason players like Verizon are holding back is that they’re reluctant to hand over so much customer control to Apple, even if it is in the relatively contract-free world of iPad data plans. The problem is more the precedent, in a market that’s already showing signs of potentially moving to favor pre-paid, bring-your-own-device arrangements.
Apple is only shipping the Apple SIM with new iPads with cellular connectivity, but the company will also be offering ‘replacement’ Apple SIM cards in store for $5 each, which conceivably means that others not already using them will be able to take advantage for older devices. If Apple does indeed offer them to anyone who comes into a retail location looking, that could quicken the pace at which new carrier partners see the light and sign up.
As others have pointed out, as of right now the Apple SIM isn’t a huge threat to the existing smartphone sales model – contract subsidies are too attractive to customers. But ultimately, Apple is almost certainly hoping to replace the physical Apple SIM with a software solution built directly into devices; in fact, it was working on such a plan back in 2010, before that was axed by opposition from a coalition of European carriers in particular.
Starting with a more flexible version of the existing hardware SIM that works only with data-limited devices like the iPad is a good way for Apple to get its feet wet with similar ambitions, and the plus side for its design department is that an in-built SIM removes the need for a SIM tray, which my editor Matthew Panzarino points out should make one knighted British designer very happy.