Apple Takes a Bite Out of The Soft-SIM Market

November 07, 2014 by Chris Gibson

Recently, Apple fans the world over waited to hear the latest innovations from Cupertino, and Apple didn’t disappoint, with an ever thinner iPad and an eye-catching new iMac 5K display. But for those of us in the communications industry the really interesting news was the iPad’s inclusion of a ‘soft SIM.’

There aren’t many technical details available at this point, and whether it’s a true software-based SIM function or an embedded hardware component with preloaded carrier setting doesn’t really matter in terms of what this innovation represents. At the basic level, the consumer is freed from one of the pain points of cellular technology, no longer having to ‘fiddle around’ with tiny tools and nano-SIMs, and potentially able to move between service providers at will and without the friction of physical logistics.

However, now the party is over, is it really all good news for the consumer? Apple already vets what apps we can access, what third party technologies are deemed acceptable (anyone remember Flash?) and now to what mobile networks we are allowed to connect. That’s right; without a physical SIM, the definition of carrier and the choices we see surrounding connectivity will have been chosen for us. And without choice are we therefore always benefiting from free-market price correction?

And it’s not only the customers faced with fewer choices; the communication service providers are at a cross-roads in this regard. Do they refuse to play Apple’s game and therefore don’t get invited to the iPad data party? Or play along, meekly giving up the legacy rights of two-year subscription contracts and subsidized lock-in sales?

This ‘war of soft SIMs’ has been coming for some time and it’s notable that Apple is unique among device manufacturers in being able to achieve this. The iPad is still a niche for cellular data provision and the non-cellular devices are sold in far higher volumes. Despite the success of family plans, the ability for a simpler relationship between customer and provider is well suited to the tablet form-factor. I think there are obvious potential challenges with the same approach in phones, most notably number portability intricacies; but who is to say Apple aren’t testing the water for a game-changing soft-SIM iPhone 7? Buckle your seat-belts if that ever happened.

Here at MATRIXX we’re well aware that market conditions have been changing, and the change is accelerating. Smart phones, LTE networks, online service provider competition: it all comes together pointing at a future where service providers are increasingly automated and the multiple touch points with customers all need to provide compelling and reliable customer experience. Apple was once thought crazy with the introduction of an all touch-screen phone, and again with the idea of the over-sized iPad, but today both form factors dominate the device landscape. With this track record there is a good chance the soft-SIM approach will also gain in popularity once the operator’s hand has been tested. So how can we all benefit?

Soft-SIMs mean that with the right settings on the handset and network a customer can instantly join and use services from a provider. No physical sales channel, SIM or offline process required. Assuming the device and network provisioning is in place there is an enormous new potential channel for customer acquisition. With the right real-time enabling infrastructure, there is no need to stop at the basic and tired old offers around data subscriptions and megabyte volumes. Providers could offer 1-hour data access packages to cater for occasional users, whether domestically or roaming. That kind of feature would prove hugely popular for frequent travellers and offer a viable competitive route to Wi-Fi access. In another kind of scenario, providers could offer bundled data and content to watch movies over LTE, where the data subscription is only as long as the video. In that light there is huge potential for pricing innovation, as the lines between data transport and content become ever more blurred.

This isn’t to say these capabilities will be available in iOS in the immediate future. But as the concept evolves it is likely that Apple will look to provide more options around plan selection than simply the chosen carrier. And if Apple’s incarnation doesn’t deliver this, now that they have opened the door on soft-SIM as an option, who is to say how the Microsoft or Android versions may play out. The important factor is that this is another moving part in an already complicated market and it will pay to be prepared.

Moving to an all real-time world where satisfied customers pay for the value they receive is something of a change in mind-set for many in this industry. But if we want to avoid a steady transformation to a heavily regulated and utility-like future, then it is necessary to adopt an open approach to customer choice, and this kind of innovation should be embraced with open arms.