Apple vs Nokia in fight to set nano-SIM standard (updated)

There's a minor battle going on between Apple and much of the mobile phone manufacturing industry to agree a new standard for a smaller SIM identity cards for mobile phones. Motorola Mobility, RIM and Nokia claim they have a superior proposal for the so-called 4FF (fourth form factor) "nano SIM" design.

There's a minor battle going on between Apple and much of the mobile phone manufacturing industry to agree a new standard for a smaller SIM identity cards for mobile phones. Motorola Mobility, RIM and Nokia claim they have a superior proposal for the so-called 4FF (fourth form factor) "nano SIM" design. However, ideas that Apple was trying to profit by setting a proprietary SIM standard may be wide of the mark.

Patent tracker Florian Mueller has claimed today that, according to an unnamed but "perfectly reliable source", Apple made "an unequivocal commitment to grant royalty-free licenses to any Apple patents essential to nano-SIM, provided that Apple's proposal is adopted as a standard and that all other patent holders accept the same terms in accordance with the principle of reciprocity."

At the moment, we have standard SIMs (subscriber identity modules) and so-called micro-SIMs, as used first in the Apple iPhone. The micro-SIM is basically a cut-down SIM, and you can use a cutting tool to convert a standard SIM to the smaller version. Snipping reduces the size but doesn't improve the old technology. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) is meeting at the end of this week to agree a new design.

It's not entirely clear if the Apple alternative is the nano-SIM announced last year by Giesecke & Devrient (G&D). However, the German company claims that "The standardization of the nano-SIM is expected to be implemented through the ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) by the end of the year."

Nokia has already argued that it's backing a superior nano-SIM that doesn't require a tray or carrier and -- unlike Apple's design -- meets ETSI's "pre-agreed requirements". In a statement emailed to The Verge website, Nokia said:

"Though Apple's proposed card is smaller than current micro SIMs, when combined with the associated mechanics needed in the phone, we don't believe it represents a significant reduction in size. We believe that in practice it would mean it was just different from micro SIM, rather than smaller, which could be a barrier to broad adoption as an alternative to micro SIM, potentially leading to fragmentation."

Apple's design also carries the risk that users could try to jam it into an old-style slot, "leading to card and product damage," says Nokia.

Unfortunately, the specifications are only open to ETSI members. There seems to be no open technical debate, and no way to test the rival claims in public.

Since consumers already find micro-SIMs rather small, it's not clear why we need a new design, and whether it would actually save much space.

Today's micro-SIMs can at least be converted to run in most mobile phones by slotting them into a small plastic holder. This gives consumers a wider choice of phones at little or no extra cost. If a new design is introduced, users' options may be reduced for several years, though Giesecke & Devrient noted that "Backward compatibility with older device models is ensured by an adapter solution that allows the nano-SIM to be integrated into all established mobile devices for universal use."

Apple does not have the support of any other mobile phone manufacturers, as far as I know. However, it reportedly has the support of several carriers, including Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, Orange, Telefonica, Verizon and Vodafone.

Update: From a later story at The Verge, it looks as though Apple's proposal is the Giesecke & Devrient nano-SIM, which is little more than a cut-down micro-SIM, and uses the same connections. Like a micro-SIM, it would therefore fit any mobile phone via an adaptor. (This makes Apple's offer of "royalty-free licenses", as claimed by Mueller, sound ridiculous.) By contrast, the Nokia/RIM designs are much like microSD cards, and this would represent a much larger change than Apple's proposal.

@jackschofield