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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Nano Smackdown

Rival proposals do battle, and a vote is postponed.

  • March 30, 2012

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute, or ETSI, decided to postpone a contentious vote today over the future of mobile nano-SIM cards, report GigaOm et des autres.

What’s a nano-SIM card? It’s the smaller, next-gen version of the chip that already lives in your phone. Defining the future of the nano-SIM card is a big deal, since whatever design is approved is likely to become industry standard, as ubiquitous as current SIMs are now. The delay is a loss for consumers, as it means we’ll have to wait that much longer for the innovations that an approved nano-SIM could bring to mobile: thinner handsets, for instance, or better batteries. The nano-SIM measures about 12 mm x 9 mm, 30% smaller than the micro-SIM, according to TechWorld, and fully 60% smaller than tradition SIM cards (which still occupy the bulk of mobile phones today).

Why’d the ETSI, which includes both vendors and operators as its members, choke? It was caught in the middle of a battle between juggernauts. Apple reportedly backed one proposal, while Nokia, RIM, and Motorola Mobility backed another. The whole thing got ugly, with RIM accusing Apple of a kind of vote-rigging, at one point (the full text of that complaint here).

The lobbying in the run-up to the (now-postponed) vote took an interesting turn when Apple offered its design for nano-SIM cards to other device makers for free. As GigaOm wryly puts it, “There’s probably more to it than a sudden spirit of generosity.” If Apple could have greater control over its SIM-card, it would inch towards a goal of “controlling every aspect of its mobile devices.” Some observers believe that if Apple could gain greater control of SIM cards, it could cut out carriers entirely (something many people would love). Nokia, feeling that Apple was unfairly throwing its weight around, responded to Apple’s move by saying Nokia would refuse to license essential patents if Apple’s preferred SIM was chosen. As the Verge put it: “Nokia’s saying, “pick our standard or no one gets a nano-SIM.”

With passions (and threats) running so high, the ETSI decided not to rush into a vote. It’s unclear exactly when the vote will be held–though we’ll have to wait another 30 days at least, according to ETSI voting rules, before we have a sense of what the future holds for SIM cards.

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