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Gemalto squeezes Facebook onto a SIM

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Gemalto has managed to get Facebook running on a SIM chip, making every GSM phone a Facebook phone and bringing social networking to the dumbest of handsets.

The SIM-based client isn't as pretty as its smartphone contemporaries – don't expect picture streams or sliding interfaces – but it was developed with the help of Facebook, and provides text-menu-based interaction with Facebook – including status updates, pokes and friend requests – to any GSM-compatible handset through the magic of the GSM SIM Toolkit and Class 2 SMS messages.

The SIM Toolkit is part of the GSM standard and thus supported on just about every GSM handset, from the dumbest PAYG talker to the latest iGear. It allows the SIM to present menu options to the user, collect responses, and pop up alerts when new data arrives, which is all that's necessary for a basic Facebook client.

Modern handsets also allow the SIM to make TCP/IP data connections, but Gemalto is eschewing that for Class 2 SMS to ensure compatibility with the most basic handsets, and networks.

Class 2 SMS messages are delivered direct to the SIM without the user being involved, so can update friends' status messages and deliver a poke or two. The application running on the SIM then prods the handset into alerting the user.

That user's own updates are sent over SMS too, following a status change or wall posting client pastes that into an SMS, which is sent silently on its way.

How, or if, the network operator charges for all those messages flying about isn't clear. Gemalto won't name operators yet but claims to be talking to one operator who reckons that Facebook is eating half its bandwidth, and another who's already working on SIM distribution strategies.

Not that a new SIM is necessarily required – SIMs are field upgradable, though few operators deploy them with sufficient empty space for an application like this and issuing replacement SIMs is probably easier from a marketing point of view.

But despite that it's likely that Facebook on the SIM will have a big impact in developing markets where smartphones and ubiquitous data networks have yet to penetrate. That could include South America, where Google's Orkut still dominates the social networking scene, or China, where QQ is where the cool kids hang out.

So having a SIM client could be good news for Facebook, as well as Gemalto and the dumbphone owners who want to stay connected. ®

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