The eSIM gives us an improved and more secure customer experience, better designed devices, opens up new market opportunities for operators and enables entire new categories of connected devices. Let’s explore this baby in a little more detail. SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards store network-specific information used to authenticate and identify subscribers on a cellular network and for the last 27 years have consisted of a physical card containing the chip which has to be inserted into the phone.
You may or may not remember, but in 1991, the SIM card that you inserted into your phone was the size of a credit card! In the intervening years the size of the humble SIM card has dramatically reduced. As manufacturers continuously strive to make smaller, slimmer and lighter devices with more features, space is at an absolute premium. Even the humble headphone jack is starting to disappear to save precious millimetres, though the cynics among us may say that is to up-sell wireless headphones.
Surely the Nano-SIM, which at 12.30 mm in length and 8.80 mm wide is small enough? Yet, as an industrial designer, you have to remember that it’s not only the size of the SIM card itself but also the space taken up by the associated internal hardware and circuitry that needs to be accommodated. For many years, manufactures have had to design and accommodate the physical SIM card via SIM card trays or other internal slots. In the quest for more durable and waterproof phones, the more ingress points that can be removed the better.
More importantly, if you want to change operator either after your contract has ended or you’re traveling on holiday, you have to go and seek out a new SIM. In certain parts of the world, that’s easier said than done. It’s all changing though. In the last few years Apple introduced the Apple SIM for use in iPad and as we led with, Google and Apple has included an eSIM as part of its new product launches.
What is an eSIM?
The term “eSIM” relates to a new standard being promoted by the GSMA – the association that represents network operators worldwide. It will come in the form of an integrated SIM, one that cannot and need not be removed from a device – something that consumer electronics manufacturers are also keen to adopt for connected items around the house as part of the Internet of Things, and something that’s been used by some car manufacturers too.
The information on it will be compliant or rewritable by all operators, meaning a user can decide to change operator with a simple phone call. A new SIM will not be required, nor there any time delay in switching the eSIM to its new purpose. There will also be no physical swapping over required by the user.
That was the original premise of the eSIM, but one of the advantages it offers from a design point of view is that you make a smaller device because there’s no need to accommodate a SIM card or the tray that holds it, hence the use in devices like the Apple Watch 3.
How does this relate to the Apple Watch 3?
With the announcement of the Apple Watch 3, Apple confirmed that the new connected version of the watch will be using an eSIM. It will be on the same number as your iPhone, so there will be a seamless experience across the two devices. For the Apple Watch 3, that means you can use messaging services, place calls, use mapping or stream music without your phone. The important thing about eSIM, however, is that it needs to be supported by the network or carrier, meaning the Apple Watch 3 will exclusive to some carriers in some countries. For the UK, that network is EE.
How Do They Work?
eSIM is a shortened version of embedded SIM, where SIM is an acronym for Subscriber Identity Module. So, an eSIM is an Embedded Subscriber Identity Module. I’m sure at this point we all know what a SIM card is—the little thing that allows your phone to connect to your cellular provider’s network. When you buy a new phone, you pop out your SIM card, drop it into the new phone, and poof!—cellular service is a go. That’s going to change with eSIM, because as the “embedded” part of the name suggests, this is actually built into the phone’s mainboard. It’s rewritable, similar to an NFC chip, and will be compatible with all the major carriers, regardless of what type of network they use.
The Apple Watch 3 and Pixel aren’t the only devices using eSIMs. Cars do too—we’ve all seen a connected car at this point, and you may have ever wondered where its SIM card is. The short answer is that it’s using an eSIM. That’s one application where it really just makes sense.
Other manufacturers of connected devices—usually smart home devices—are also using eSIMs. It just makes sense: it’s less hassle for the customer, more connection options for the manufacturer. And for those types of applications, it really is a win-win. When we start talking about bringing this tech to smartphones, however, its gets a little fuzzier.
Like I mentioned earlier, right now when you want to switch phones, you pop your SIM card out and drop it in the new handset. With an eSIM, you’ll have to actually talk to your carrier, which I personally think is a step backwards—I can change SIM cards in a matter of seconds, all without ever having to actually (ugh) call someone. That said, there are other opportunities here—perhaps carriers will release connectivity apps that allows you to quickly activate your phone on their network. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but I am suggesting it’s a legitimate possibility.
The difference between SIM and eSIM
If you’re carrying around a phone that has network access, you can probably also see your provider’s name in a top corner. This is all brought to you by the SIM card inside, which identifies your phone and what type of plan it’s using based on a profile. Traditional SIM cards can only be linked up with one profile and are generally useless if that profile stops being used.
Phones are not the only devices using SIM cards, and we’ve seen plenty of laptops and tablets take advantage of the tech for years, especially in the enterprise sector. Lenovo’s ThinkPad line-up of business laptops is a great example.
SIM cards come in a few different sizes, evolving as phones have been slimmed down and packed with other hardware. You have Standard SIM that’s about the size of an SD card, Micro SIM that’s slightly smaller (15mm x 12mm), and finally Nano SIM (12.3mm x 8.8mm) is the smallest of them all.
An eSIM, however, isn’t a removable card. Instead, it’s embedded (that’s the ‘e’) on the device’s motherboard or part of the processor — there’s nothing to insert and nothing to remove. Because an eSIM cannot be removed if you’d like to switch providers, remote provisioning is used instead. Instead of going to a store, acquiring a new SIM card, and swapping it out, with an eSIM the changeover is handled entirely virtually.
eSIM has the ability to use and store multiple profiles. If you travel, for example, getting access to a new country’s mobile provider won’t require tracking down and swapping out SIM cards. You also won’t have to worry about cutting a Micro SIM down to fit the Nano SIM slot on your phone (which is seriously not fun). eSIM also takes up far less physical room inside a device, which is much more important in wearable’s but also becomes a factor as phones, tablets, and laptops get thinner.
The Benefits of eSIM
That may sound inconvenient, but the benefits pretty strongly outweigh the cons.
First off, since device manufacturers won’t have to accommodate a SIM card slot in their phones, they’ll have even more flexibility in terms of design. With the SIM card actually embedded into the device’s internal hardware, bezels could theoretically shrink, phones could perhaps get slightly thinner without sacrificing battery, and a lot more. That’s precisely why Apple chose to use an eSIM in the Watch 3—it makes so much sense in a small form factor device like a smart watch.
Also, this could be a game changer for international travellers who have to swap SIM cards, services, or even carry more than one phone to stay connected. Instead of having to pop into a local cellular provider store to get a new SIM card when travelling abroad, imagine just being able to make a quick phone call (or, like I suggested earlier, open an app) and boom—coverage. All without having to jump through hoops or change phones.
The Challenges of eSIM
There is a catch, though: adoption. Before we can make the leap over to eSIM, every major carrier is going to have to agree that eSIMs are the future. Then, phone manufacturers will have to follow suit. If you know how this industry works, those kinds of things take time.
But it starts with one carrier, which will then grow to two, and so forth. Like I mentioned earlier, Google’s Pixel 2 is the first smartphone to use an eSIM, but that’s only if you’re using the phone on Project Fi. For all others, it still uses a traditional SIM.
And, as we mentioned before, switching phones can be a bit more time-consuming. You can swap your SIM card out in seconds, where the change to eSIMs will take longer to do the same thing. While I realize this won’t affect most people, that’s a real hassle for someone like me, who may switch a SIM card for just a few minutes to test something on a specific phone.
What does the future?
The Apple Watch 3, Google Pixel 2, and Microsoft Surface Pro LTE are a few high-profile devices that feature eSIM technology right now, and the new Always Connected PCs from Microsoft’s partners are adding to the list.
It’s clear that the need for eSIM is growing, and its flexibility is no doubt attractive to a large audience. As Windows Central wrote, “The ability to take a PC or 2-in-1 wherever in the world you are and still have multiple ways to get on the internet is going to be critical for businesses, the modern nomadic millennial workforce, creators, those who are self-employed, and even regular consumers.”
Still, it must continue to be accepted, served, and utilized by more mobile carriers and device manufacturers. For example, the eSIM inside the Surface Pro LTE is currently sitting dormant (there’s also a traditional SIM slot), but that will soon change. Microsoft is expected to start selling chunks of data rather than full plans, letting anyone with an eSIM device pick up a few gigabytes here and there when necessary. And the Pixel 2’s eSIM is only used for Project Fi, which limits its potential worldwide usage.