Micro-SIM – Apple’s cynical iPad lock?

Steve Jobs bragged onstage that Apple’s new iPad isn’t locked to a specific carrier, yet with the next breath he unveiled something far more insidious.

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Rather than using the standard-sized SIM card used in millions of mobile devices around the world, the iPad will use micro-SIM cards – a format few people outside of the industry had heard of before the iPad announcement. The micro-SIM card format is technically compatible with standard SIM devices, it just places the chip on a smaller piece of plastic. In theory you could trim down a SIM card to fit in a micro-SIM slot, although then you’d struggle to use it in any other device.

Apple’s long-time telco partner AT&T will be ready to roll with micro-SIM cards when the 3G-enabled iPad launches in March, but other telcos around the world are now scrambling to introduce the new SIM card format. The use of micro-SIM cards is mostly likely the reason why the launch of 3G-enabled iPads has been delayed in many countries.

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The use of micro-SIM cards might seem like a hassle for the telcos, but you can bet they’ll be pleased. It’s end users that are really disadvantaged by Apple’s decision to use non-standard SIM cards. Initially iPad owners will have no choice but to use the few telcos which offer micro-SIM cards, making a mockery of Steve Jobs’ claims the iPad is “unlocked”. While the iPhone’s software lock could be easily subverted, a de facto hardware lock such as a micro-SIM slot can not be bypassed and limits your choice of provider.

Over time other telcos will introduce micro-SIM cards, but this won’t necessarily be good news for consumers. iPad customers will not be able to use the SIM card from their existing mobile broadband adaptors, nor will they be able to shop around for the best broadband deal for their iPad. They’ll be forced to use micro-SIM cards and with that the specific contracts and mobile data plans associated with those cards. This isn’t necessarily a problem in the US, where AT&T will offer unlimited data for US$30 per month without a contract, but you can be certain that other telcos around the world won’t be as generous.

In many countries, iPad owners will pay more for iPad data and face other restrictions just because they’re using an iPad. Customers won’t have any choice, because they’ll be locked into the micro-SIM plans. Apple has a history of handing over control of devices to mobile providers, such as letting them disable tethering on iPhones or even charge an extra fee to tether with data they’ve already paid for. With the use of micro-SIM cards, Apple has once again sold out its loyal customers – leaving them at the mercy of greedy, monopolistic telcos with a history of screwing customers for everything they can get.

The use of micro-SIM cards is not mentioned on Apple’s iPad spec sheet. Jobs only mentioned it in passing and didn’t even attempt to justify the use of micro-SIM whilst on stage, standing within the protection of his famous Reality Distortion Field. Even a master showman like Jobs knowing there’s no justification for using micro-SIM cards except to hand control over to the telcos.

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