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Report: Nokia, Apple battle over ultra-tiny nano-SIMs

Mobe-makers in race to grab cash-laden standard

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Nokia is reportedly fighting the Apple-based proposal for a nano-SIM with designs of its own, aimed at preventing Cupertino scooping the patent fees which come with ratification.

Despite repeated enquiries, Nokia has failed to provide any confirmation or denial of the Financial Times's report (behind paywall) that Nokia – concerned that Apple is poised to grab the lion's share of patent revenue – has proposed an alternative design to the proposed nano-SIM technology to standards body ETSI.

It's an interesting idea, though hard to credit as there's no trace of such a filing at ETSI and in order to have its patents incorporated into a standard Apple would have to agree to FRAND (Fair, Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory) pricing. That's not to say having one's patent in the standard isn't profitable – the mechanism has served Nokia well over the years – but a better argument will be needed to sell an alternative to the ETSI.

Apple, on the other hand, would love some FRAND patents, but mostly it jut wants smaller SIM cards and has roped in a handful of network operators to support it's version of fourth-generation SIM.

SIMs use the same technology as chip-and-PIN credit cards; the pattern of contacts and communication protocols are identical. The computer inside a credit card isn't in the card itself: the chips are glued to the back of metal contacts so the rest of the card is wasted plastic (though some contactless applications embed an antenna in the plastic).

Some very early GSM phones even used full-sized cards, tucked under the battery, but that quickly became impractical and the SIM as we know it (technically known as the Universal Integrated Circuit Card, UICC) became ubiquitous.

Apple wanted more space for the iPhone 4, and so took advantage of the largely ignored mini-UICC, which became known as the micro-SIM in order to create even more confusion. Micro-SIMs are now used in a handful of the slimmest smartphones, but to make them even slimmer Apple wants to trim off even more of the fat.

That has led to an Apple-led ETSI project to create a nano-SIM as much as 40 per cent smaller than the mini-SIM, including a marked reduction in depth which will make it a lot harder to trim an existing SIM with a pair of nail clippers. Apple has roped in Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, Orange, Telefonica, Verizon and Vodafone to support the proposal, but notably no other handset manufacturers are involved.

This is separate, by the way, from Apple's attempt to get rid of the SIM entirely: moving it into software and enabling users to change network operators at the tap of a screen. That's a different ETSI group, and one which is unlikely to gain operator support any time soon.

If Nokia has indeed proposed an alternative nano-SIM, then the ETSI will have to decide which to incorporate as a standard. Fortunately the idea has occurred to the group and there are even selection criteria, which prioritise size (of SIM and reader), consistency of connections, time to market and electrical protection (from wrongful insertion) – in that order. Apple's solution reportedly requires a caddy (or draw) for insertion, which should improve usability but at the cost of making the overall reader bigger – but the ETSI specifications require users to be able handle the nano-SIM with alacrity.

Apple may well have significant patent holdings on the caddy concept, and wouldn't mind being bound by FRAND rules if it gave the company ammunition against Samsung (which is suing Apple for infringing patents covered by FRAND). Standards groups are increasingly forums within which companies push the technology they own rather than the best solution to the problem, and Nokia has too much form in that area to complain when Apple takes the same approach. ®

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