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Nokia threatens to elbow Apple's rival nano-SIM off a cliff

Finns refuse to license vital patents in mobe tiff

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Nokia will refuse to license its SIM patents if telecoms body ETSI approves Apple's alternative tiny design, upping the stakes in the battle for the next-generation itty-bitty SIM.

Nokia believes that the adoption of Apple's nano-SIM would contravene ETSI's own rules on a tiny SIM design, thus absolving the Finnish mobe maker of its obligations to fairly and squarely license standards-related patents to Apple. Nokia holds 50 patent families relating to the SIM concept.

Withholding access to these vital patents would make it next to impossible to manufacture the nano-SIM, so Nokia is basically saying that its own tiny SIM design is the only one that could ever be built.

Patents embodied in standards are typically bound by Fair, Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) agreements, which require the patent owner to license them without prejudice. Nokia's SIM patents are part of the earlier standards, but if the ETSI design rules are broken by Apple's nano-SIM then Nokia reckons it won't be required to carry over the FRAND arrangements.

The design rules to which Nokia is referring are the ETSI criteria by which the standard tiny SIM will be selected. Those criteria are explicit, and Nokia reckons its tiny SIM design is a closer match on at least two of the four including the most important one: size.

The dimensions, as judged by ETSI, will include the tray (and associated mechanism) inherent in Apple's design, and Nokia reckons that makes theirs smaller.

Next up is consistency of connections (the 8-pad connection your correspondent has tattooed on his left hand), but we don't have enough information to compare the designs on that score. Third is time to market, which is open to debate, and last comes prevention from wrongful insertion - something Nokia claims will plague Apple's proposal, which is as wide as an existing micro-SIM is long.

It's worth noting that while the physical size and shape of the SIM might not be well covered by patents, the communications protocol and operational architecture is, and it's very likely that Nokia holds essential patents in that area. Working around those patents would mean redesigning the very basis of the SIM, lengthening the time to market and increasing the development cost hugely, if it even proved possible.

With the ETSI criteria being so open it should be a straightforward process to look at both designs and decide which is the closer match, regardless of threats or lobbying, but the very fact that Nokia feels it necessary to make such a threat shows the decision is far from a forgone conclusion.

Apple's proposal is backed by a handful of network operators, named on the submission to ETSI, while Nokia has the backing of RIM and Motorola, but this should not be a political decision even if patent politics has become endemic within the industry. ®

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