Whatever happened to... virtual SIMs?

Wait. We've just seen one! No, it's gone

MWC16 Everyone knows physical SIM cards have had their day. Small connected devices like wearables and IoT kit don’t have the space to accommodate SIMs, and shouldn’t have to. Nor should bikes. But as the operators’ "most potent instrument of control", they haven’t been in a hurry to give it up.

Apple wanted to abolish SIM cards years ago, and was granted a patent for a virtual SIM in 2011. But it’s had to settle for a bespoke, switchable multi-operator SIM, a cumbersome arrangement for everyone.

The GSMA’s Remote SIM provisioning is another halfway house. An embedded device (such as a smart meter) can be provisioned once, but then be switched to another operator over the air.

As McKinsey explained last year, if you're an operator who can provision a device remotely, the customer doesn’t need to come into your shop. You lose potential face-to-face time with the customer, and the chance to upsell them. Perhaps you don’t even need the shop?

In an eSIM, the smarts - the e-UICC circuitry (spec) - is moved to the device. The industry agreed an e-UICC standard years ago, and in 2013 forecast widespread adoption in M2M markets during 2014-15, reaching a potential 639 million by 2020. Much talked about at MWC 2015, the eSIM was given a boost when Samsung’s Gear S2 watch was revealed, with remote provisioning wizardry built in. It was the first IoT "thing" to support the official GSMA e-UICC spec.

Telefonica gave a nice demo of how it will work in practice today using a Samsung Gear S2. Users pair the watch to their phone using Bluetooth, scan a QR Code, and sit back. The operator adds the watch to their data contract and it gets activated. Don’t all rush at once, though, we’re only just getting to the “commercial pilot” stage.

While it’s easy enough for a Samsung or Apple to support in new devices, the consumer is going to expect it to work, which needs the provisioning infrastructure be in place globally.

For those who can’t wait, here’s a Telefonica update. It's short on dates. ®

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