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With Embedded SIMs, Sprint Misses The Point

By Michael Fisher May 7, 2012, 3:02 pm

If you've been following the news surrounding the new HTC One series, you already know that Sprint has opened pre-orders for its version of the One XL, the Evo 4G LTE. It's a solidly-specced device with a popular brand name that promises to sell well. If you've been following the news very closely, however, you also know that it packs a disadvantage cleverly disguised as a feature: an embedded SIM. Which makes about as much sense as a cast-iron laptop: they both offer the same degree of convenience and portability.

Pictured: lame sauce masquerading as hotness. For the uninitiated: SIM cards have for over twenty years been a critical component of the majority of the world's mobile phones. They contain, at minimum, the user's phone number and contacts list, and they provide authentication information to the network so calls and other user activity can be properly authorized and billed.


Like most pieces of mobile communications technology, SIM cards started life big. In fact, when they debuted in 1991 courtesy of Munich-based securities company Giesecke & Devrient, the first "Subscriber Identity Modules" were the size of credit cards. The SIM that's come to be the most identifiable to modern users is actually technically known as a "mini-SIM," and today it's gradually giving way to the even smaller micro-SIM, thanks to companies like Apple embracing the new format.

Less well-known is the fourth category, the embedded SIM, and it's the oddest of the bunch. That's because it lacks one of the features that SIM cards have offered from the very beginning: portability.

For about two decades, mobile phone users on GSM networks (AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S., and most networks elsewhere in the world) have enjoyed the ability to move from handset to handset at will. Just by swapping SIM cards, a user can transition relatively painlessly from one device to another, without ever contacting their wireless provider. It's a freedom that customers on CDMA-based carriers (Sprint and Verizon in the U.S.) have had to do without, as these companies have opted not to incorporate similar functionality into their networks. As a consequence, Verizon and Sprint customers have been forced to call their carriers whenever they want to swap phones. More recently, web-based tools have ameliorated that time-waster somewhat.

Still not as easy as swapping a card. When Verizon began transitioning to LTE devices, a large segment of American CDMA customers were exposed to the convenience of SIM cards for the first time. While differences in bands still make interoperability across carriers mostly impossible in America -I can't swap a Verizon LTE SIM into an AT&T LTE device and expect it to work- the added convenience is very real for users wishing to swap devices on the same network. For example, I can easily transfer my 2012-edition Verizon iPad's micro-SIM into my Verizon Galaxy Nexus and use its data plan on that device, without so much as thinking of calling anyone at Verizon. That's nice.

You know what other American carrier used to offer this? Nextel. The iDEN device family that Nextel still uses today has supported SIM cards for over a decade, and because of that, swapping from phone to phone on that network has always been technically possible, and usually very convenient.

Unfortunately, Sprint didn't do a terribly good job of acquiring that company -it's considered one of the worst-executed mergers in recent history- and among the lessons it failed to learn was the portability advantage that SIMs provide. The Evo 4G LTE and the Sprint Galaxy Nexus both contain embedded SIM cards. If that's not ominous evidence of a trend, I'm not sure what is.

Go ahead and look for the slot. It's like an annoying, never-ending version of hide-and-seek. The end result is that users of these devices will experience the same lack of convenience offered by a traditional CDMA phone: a non-removable serial number confining them to one device. When they want to change devices, they need to call Sprint or log in to a website.

To cut through the FUD for a second: things could be worse. We no longer live in the draconian world of yesteryear, when some CDMA carriers would charge fees or try to renew your contract every time you called in for an ESN swap. And performing such a switch online takes even less time.

Furthermore, the utility of SIMs has already been severely impeded by carriers that support them; different SIMs support different features on AT&T, making swaps difficult. Even Nextel completely eliminated the usefulness of such transfers for a while, requiring customers to call in to swap to a new SIM/IMEI combination if they wanted to change phones.

So this won't be a massive sea change for Sprint subscribers who've already become acclimated to inconvenience. But isn't that kind of disappointing? We have a body of customers -almost 100 million- on Verizon Wireless who've suddenly been given a capability that's been denied them since before Verizon even came into being. It won't mean as much to them as the fast data speeds or other advantages that LTE offers, but even a little-known and underappreciated advantage is an advantage. Meanwhile, Sprint, struggling as hard as ever to even stay relevant, has once again decided to do its own thing … by choosing a path that makes its subscribers' lives less convenient.

Maybe Sprint knows something I don't, but I don't see how offering your customers less choice, especially when you're the underdog, can ever be a good thing.

iPad-to-phone swap story source: CNET


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