Why Microsoft's mobile future may depend on eSIM

Surface Logo
Surface Logo (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

I've consistently advocated that despite Microsoft's smartphone debacles, the company's over-arching mobile strategy now targets a post-smartphone future consisting of pocketable, telephony-enabled PCs that are part of the cellular roadmap.

Given the indomitable nature of smartphones, the strength of mobile carriers and the cultural impact of the current mobile model, the idea of Microsoft introducing anything other than a smartphone within the context of the current carrier paradigm seemed delusional to some.

Believe it or not, Microsoft's mobile strategy is still on course (seriously)

However, Microsoft's rumored eSIM-equipped Project Andromeda device category as well as its Always-Connected PC partnership with Qualcomm, does not fit within the context of the current smartphone-carrier model. Here's how eSIM and Windows 10 brings all of this together.

What is eSIM?

eSIM, or "embedded subscriber identity module," is an electronic version of the familiar SIM cards that we're accustomed to slipping in and out of our smartphones. SIM cards have two primary functions - to connect and identify devices on cellular networks. This is also true of eSIM.

Physical SIM cards are "hardwired" to a particular mobile carrier. This means that when a user switches carriers, a physical trip to a carrier store to acquire a new SIM card is often required. eSIM has a feature called Remote SIM Provisioning. It allows users to dynamically switch between carriers directly from the device.

eSIMs are not "hardwired" to a particular carrier, they can store multiple accounts. Thus, Microsoft's and Qualcomm's goal is to build as many carrier partnerships for eSIM-equipped devices as possible to provide maximum industry breadth and consumer choice. Qualcomm recently announced multiple carriers from around the world who are supporting Always-Connected PCs.

Windows 10 is key to this new cellular PC model because it provides the platform, through the Microsoft Store, for users to purchase data from a choice of carriers without his ever having to go to a physical store.

What eSIM means for Microsoft

Microsoft Surface logo

Microsoft Surface logo (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

The new user-behavior and carrier models the combination of eSIM and Windows 10 introduce make Microsoft's mobile efforts less dependent on whether or not a carrier wants to carry a specific device. That power imbalance dictates the current smartphone paradigm and plagued Microsoft's smartphone efforts. Here are three essential advantages the eSIM model introduces:

  • Mobile carriers will have to vie for consumer attention in the Microsoft Store (potentially hundreds of millions of devices in time) which can drive competitive pricing.
  • Carriers have already committed to carrying Always-Connected PCs in their stores.
  • Windows Core OS allows Windows 10 to conform to different form factors. Thus the model of purchasing data from the Microsoft Store on cellular PCs can translate to other form factors and potentially include voice.

Microsoft's one-Windows strategy revolves around a single core and common experience across device types. Thus, current and future eSIM-equipped Windows devices will likely benefit from the technological and changing business model foundations being laid by Always Connected PCs.

Microsoft must leverage eSIM and 5G to position Andromeda device

Why eSIM matters to you

eSIM is the future of mobile and IoT devices. Microsoft is not the only company pursuing this technology. Recent iterations of the Apple Watch use eSIM. And China-based Unicom recently launched eSIM One Phone Number Dual Terminal, which allows a phone number to be shared between a user's wearable devices and smartphone.

Additionally, the GSMA is an alliance of approximately 800 mobile carriers that are collaborating on advancing universal standards for eSIM.

The GSMA is an 800-member alliance working to standardize eSIM.

Still, if Always Connected PCs are successful, Microsoft's one billion PC install base and 600 million Windows 10 devices potentially position the company to mainstream eSIM and gain mindshare via eSIM-equipped consumer and business PCs. These PCs provide the freedom and convenience of not being wholly dependent upon Wi-Fi.

How Qualcomm and Microsoft are making PCs post-smartphone devices

Though we don't know if Microsoft's solution will ultimately allow it, Apple and China's Unicom set precedents for sharing phone numbers between eSIM devices. This could address the concern some observers have expressed about multiple cellular plans for Always Connected PCs, Microsoft's rumored Andromeda device, and a smartphone.

Through eSIM, Microsoft and Qualcomm are bringing PCs to the mobile platform and potentially Project Andromeda to our pockets. This is Microsoft's mobile strategy, and eSIM is key to its technological foundation and consumer appeal.

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!