Nokia’s New Nano-SIM Should Beat Apple’s Cut-Up

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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ETSI should reject Apple’s old-school cut-down nano-SIM in favour of innovation, says Max Smolaks

International standards are usually a boring subject. No one besides a circle of highly qualified professionals is interested in electromagnetic compatibility of electrically powered wheelchairs. But every once in a while, a standard can capture the imagination of the public at large. That is exactly what happened with the nano-SIM.

Smell of napalm in the morning

It started with the Financial Times publishing an article which detailed the disagreement between Apple and Nokia/Motorola/RIM about what future SIM cards should look like. It seemed like the iPhone manufacturer’s design was a sure winner, with the majority of mobile network operators behind it, but Nokia had a point: it didn’t want to arm Apple with IP ammunition in case of possible future conflicts.

To ease these concerns, Apple offered a peace pipe, in the shape of a royalty-free license. It said it will not charge a penny for the use of the design, and asked the same of the competition, in case their idea would come out on top.

The royalty-free license made perfect sense on paper, but the spell was broken when the public saw the design itself (the Verge has some great schematics). Apple’s nano-SIM is the same SIM-card you have in your phone, with all of the plastic shaved off completely. The same chip is still there, the contacts – in the same position. A mini-SIM could be transformed into a micro-SIM with the help of a pair of scissors. This time, the operation is more complicated. It requires a Stanley knife.

In short, Apple offered royalty-free license to something it didn’t, and possibly never could patent. It is no wonder Nokia et al were offended.

“We are not aware of any Apple Intellectual Property which it considers essential to its nano-SIM proposal. In light of this, Apple’s proposal for royalty-free licensing seems no more than an attempt to devalue the intellectual property of others,” wrote a company spokesman.

At the same time, patent expert Florian Mueller has noted that Apple did submit a hidden provisional patent application to ETSI which might be relevant to the nano-SIM.

If you can’t beat them, confuse them

But if Nokia denies Apple has its intellectual property concealed somewhere inside the miniature SIM design, why is it so  opposed to using it? Possibly because it is actually inferior.

Not only does Apple’s offering shun innovation, it also goes against the basic requirements set out for the new standard. According to ETSI guidelines, the new design should prevent nano-SIM from being jammed in the mini-SIM reader. The width of the mini- and micro-SIM reader is 12 millimetres. The length of the nano-SIM proposed by Apple is 12.3 millimetres. I say, that is totally jammable.

In addition, Apple’s nano-SIM will require a protective jacket that will house the chip and allow installation into the phone, similar to the tiny tray for the micro-SIM used in the last generation of iPhones. The extra bit of plastic will practically negate any benefit to having a smaller card.

What about Nokia’s design? Built from scratch, it doesn’t resemble the traditional SIM at all. It is considerably smaller, and doesn’t require additional plastic components. Jamming is not a problem here, since it is very unlikely the weird-looking card will be backward compatible, and thus will have nothing to do near the mini- or micro-SIM readers.

ETSI will have to make a choice this week, and it’s not an easy one. On one hand, it has Apple’s design with its simple, old school plastic-shaving solution. On the other, there’s the weird beast Nokia has created, which is smaller, makes more sense in the long term, but will divide mobile phones into pre-nano and post-nano categories. Apple refines, while Nokia innovates. I hope ETSI will see the new standard as an opportunity to shape the future, rather than cling to the past.

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