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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.

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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 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!

  • Isn't this just a thing for the US market (a bit like Cortana...)? I never noticed a carrier problem in the UK and have never faced issues sticking any sim I like into my phones. Even if someone (not me...) buys a locked phone it is a simple matter to unlock it here. This is kinda why esims concern me. Will we be locked in to esims only on the Surface not-Phone etc. (so in the UK this will tie us all to EE as the only company listed as readying to support esim), or will we be able to stick in any old Nano sim from any company as we currently do with Windows phones? Will this esim end up being less restrictive for the US and more restrictive for the rest of the world? We need both esim and regular sim, we do not need things being tied down to one company looking to make a monopoly.
  • In Canada, all phones are sold unlocked, even the ones sold on contract by carriers. If it is locked, they have to unlock it for free. I haven't been on any contract since 2012, and have always bought unlocked phones so I pop in local Sims everywhere I travel. So for me e SIMs make no difference at all.
  • Well, eSIM does make a difference. Now you don't have to physically buy the SIM and you don't have to pull the tray or remove battery to swap it and you don't have to carry multiple SIMs somewhere safely. You just do all these from the phone UI. And you might be able to have the SIM switched automatically as you travel.
  • In Japan, a lot more unlocked phone are being sold recently but average consumers are afraid to use'em.
  • The eSim replaces the need for the nano Sim card. All of the provisioning that takes place when you change a physical Sim card now takes place with a click of a button without any removable Sim card. The issue of lock in is a concern, but I think that's why there are these partnership associations, basically the guidelines will say that if you offer eSim it has to meet these standards, and one of them is interoperability. The only issue you'll have is if a carrier doesn't support eSim and there is no physical slot on the device, you wouldn't be able to use that carrier.
  • And that is exactly the issue, as few carriers support esim so if there is no physical slot the choice of carriers is restricted. From the looks of it, extremely restricted. Sure, support esim, but why restrict the number of carriers we can use? Currently the system works. Don't remove it, add esim for the US, I'm fine with that, just don't remove all the competition for everyone else. Why I've been voted down for daring to suggest that keeping a competitive carrier environment and avoiding an EE monopoly is a good thing I have no clue. Presumably EE execs are on here trolling.
  • Well said, Andy. If it's gonna be another longshot, US-only gimmick, just give me a regular SIM slot and let me use the device.
  • GSMA is working on standardizing it means all 800 carriers will start supporting them. Eventually eSIM will take over the physical SIM cards but it could take a while.
  • Curious, what prevent'em if carriers wants to support e-sim? And... as a carrier what's the reason / benefit to not support it? And... can I have the same number on 2 physical sims and use'em simultaneously? It's easier to switch profile between devices with e-sim tho (that is, if I can't use 1 profile on multiple devices).
  • It's funny how Daniel is struggling trying to convince people of this in his similar write up he just posted. I have unlimited data and included tethering now... I have absolutely no need for this. My phone is always on my person. Why pay more, when I can already do this via tethering? This is like saying UWP is the way of the future... NOT! Such absurd thinking... I say. This needs to be called what it is... Just an option for those who don't have an unlimited date plan with included tethering. The better option is going with an unlimited data plan... PERIOD.
  • Everything new that has been introduced has had little support beyond the introducer initially.  As it became popular other providers knew they had to get on board in order to stay competitive.  The same is happening here with eSIM.  In your country you may only have the one company but if enough interest is shown early on you can bet the others will start to get on board.  Until then they do not want give up their control of the sim cards that you have to physically go get in order to get on their network.  ESIMs will change that because we consumers no matter where we are in the world do not want to have to go and do anything that we can do from where we are no matter where that is.
  • Just another project that someone else will do better and then MS will lose interest and start a new project that someone else will do better. Things at MS have a short life cycle.
    My 950 xl is just about at its end. Time to move on and not look back.
  • e-sim is not MS's project...
  • Don't sugar coat it, or make excuses up for MS.... eSim isn't solely MS's project, but the implementation of it into millions devices to help them gain relativity in the mobile market definitely is MS'S project. He's right. We will see if MS either makes it happen, or gets distracted as usual.
  • As much as I hate it,, nobody here can disagree with your highly educated guess.
    I mean, I hope MS finally pulls thier head out thier ass; I really do. They have yet another opportunity to make something great happen. Only time will tell if they actually follow through.
  • My 950 xl is just about at its end. Time to move on to Surface eSIM not a phone and not look back.
  • I'm in. Leaving for Europe next week. Wish I already had one of these.
  • Good luck finding any carriers that support it. If you do, you'll find you have no choice, just the one. They can then charge you what they like. If you have a nano sim device you can take your pick.
  • I think @AndyCalling overdosed on his negative pills this morning. Breathe Andy, breathe.
  • Really? Because an e-sim only device threatens to alleviate carrier dominance problems in the US whilst simultaneously setting up that very problem in many other countries. I see the up side, it's just not really great to have to emigrate to the US to experience it. A device that takes both esim and nano sim though, now that would be just the ticket. You find that a negative approach? Do you hold shares in EE by any chance then?
  • It might do the opposite. It might be easier for carriers to block devices.
  • Chill out Andy.  This is not a conspiracy.  It's just another step forward in technology. If you want a device with both SIM and eSIM capability then I'm sure there will be devices available for you over the next few years at least.  In fact, you can order the Surface Pro LTE right now, and it has exactly that capability. However, the reality is that over the next few years ALL telco service providers, globally, will transition to eSIM.  It just makes good economic and technological sense for them.  Implementing and managing eSIM technology is less expensive, less time consuming, less people intensive and provides scope for easier feature expansions - such as a single account on multiple devices and muliple accounts on a single device.  So you/we will still have the same sub-standard telco choices that we have today, but they will offer their services via eSIM. Here in Australia, our telcos are already working on and testing eSIM.  It's real.  It's happening.  It's just a matter of time.  Perhaps it's time to put down the extra-large strong coffee and get excited about the wonderful new capabilities that such advancements bring. Have a great day!  :)
  • I think that Andy is right though, perhaps a compromise of phones where a SIM cards settings are preferred over eSIM but if, for example, in the UK someone is on O2-UK and they go to the US on holiday or business a carrier could allow them to apply eSIM settings to get access to their network for the duration of their stay.
  • You talk about the future. That's great, esim will be fine when it's available everywhere. I agree, there is no conspiracy, mind you you're the first to bring up the possibility. No-one has suggested there is one. The problem is poor, US-centric thinking during the current phase of tech where esim is a rare beast. A bit of conspiracy would be a good thing, if it meant some folks putting their heads together and working out that these devices need to work within today's networks as well as tomorrows. Why people are getting all het up about my suggesting such a simple and obvious approach I have no clue. You really do need to wind your neck in a bit there, Grey.
  • They will, and in the future eSIM will be the norm. As USB Type-C. But right now, and for some years, it has more drawbacks than advantages for the majority of the countries. It would be a shame if eSIM coverage was a limitation for the Andromeda device when it finally releases. I think it would be a mistake to limit it to just eSIM. And I would personally be majorly pissed off.
  • I love the idea of being able to purchase data that meets my needs at that moment, such as coverage or speed differences in a specific spot, or using international carriers without having to worry about losing a Sim card or waiting until a store is open.
  • It has its advantages but the number of people who actually need such flexibility is likely very small, most mobile users don't travel internationally. And again, LTE on a Windows device is nothing new, so it seems the impact of this is being greatly exaggerated
  • I think the potential impact is based on a number of factors going Microsoft's way which is a long shot. Basically manufactures need to start including these capabilities in large numbers and in a cost effective way so that carriers see it as their best chance to add new profits, which in turn will lead to them embracing and pushing the products in stores and advertising, which will lead to larger consumer adoption of Windows 10 devices which primarily use the store, which will bring more developers along. I love the potential of that all happening, but Microsoft doesn't have a track record of moving the consumer market so it will be a surprise to me if this doesn't just become another nice option for enterprise and enthusiasts but mostly ignored by consumers.
  • Define mobility, if you can sit down in the park with a Windows ARM Ultrabook and you can make phone calls with your laptops cellular connection would you need 2 data plans? My answer would be no, that I would use my laptop data plan only 
  • Should I trust MS now with network after so many disappointment?
  • If you are asking about the mobile future then I can't answer but the eSIM technology is here already.
  • I can't wait 😍 how long are we going to play this waiting game?
  • I think that carriers are Microsoft's best friend on this and as smartphone interest is declining globally, interest in these devices can grow up exponentially. What we need is a software built by Microsoft that can make a bridge between your laptop cellular connection and the phone so you can make a phone call but using your laptop data plan
  • You think this can increase PC sales at all? No way. LTE PCs are available today, what exactly is the difference?
  • "What exactly is the difference?" The ability to dynamically, puchase data(potentially voice in the future) from a choice of carrier directly from the Windows Store ad not being locked into a carrier via a physical SIM. Also, Alway Connected PCs have smartphone like features, instant on, longer battery life and always connected.
  • I doubt the percentage of people currently using or requiring LATE/cellular capable laptops/tablets are not significant enough. I just don't think there's such a huge demand for always on cellular capable laptops or tablets. The reason being form factor.
  • Its not a big deal as u mk it to be or may be its a US only phenomenon which means another failed localized attempt from ms
  • So you think the big issue with Microsoft is the way you buy data? Come on. You don't actually believe the way you buy data will help microsoft at all, do you?
  • PC sales in new category will increase for sure. Whether andromeda is that new category only time can tell that.
  • Smartphone sales have already peaked. Another one isn't going to make a difference.
  • I think the difference will be in the style and usability of the devices. If the next gen is simply the same laptops as now just with added LTE it won't take off. If the next gen is a device that is easier to use with internet but in environments that don't have wifi it will take off. Right now if I'm using my Surface, even when I'm "mobile" I'm likely to be sitting somewhere to use it and it's easy to do that somewhere with wifi. If I have a device that is easier to use in more situations like I do with my phone I'm more likely to need LTE.
  • Good info on eSIM and its role in the market, but as you said, this will apply to the mobile industry as a whole. While people learning about and getting used to an eSIM way of doing things could help Microsoft's mobile efforts, it's not going to be a point of differentiation for any significant period of time.
  • Bring it on!, people with a need of a laptop that already have a good phone and don't want to renew their data plan on a phone can get a data plan on their laptop and with new software they can make phone calls using their laptop data connection, but with the phone speaker. Samsung and Apple are in decline actually, as iPhoneX sales and pre-orders of Galaxy S9 are much lower than analysts expected
  • All this is very interesting but I don't see this being enabled by the carriers in my country. And so, if this is again a half-assed yet full of potential attempt from Microsoft, what's in it for me, who I'm about begging to have decent MS devices not to switch to dreadful Android and keep using the MS ecosystem and devices???
  • PCs  and smartphones will live for a long time, post smartphone is just a delusion. They say andromeda will not replace your phone nor your PC so what will it do? just will support simple functions of both wich is not good enough.
  • I woulnd't call it post smartphone, but post candy bar smartphone. That's highly likely going to be replaced. 
  • not for the coming 10 years at least. and if the Smartphone gets full OS in it with very powerfull processor then it can replace the PC this is also highly likely.
  • Nah. So long as a pocket device is limited by heat and/or power, larger devices will be capable of far more. People like more. It sells quite a lot. It will be a VERY long time before this kind of shift in technology could be achieved. I don't expect to be there when it happens. However, a device that folds is the first move in that direction (laptops don't fold, they just have a screen flap, the device is all in the bottom), providing a larger device (tablet) in a smaller space than tablets can usually use by folding does provide more space for the electronics and so should perform on another level compared to phones.
  • It is not so big shift in technology as you think and it will take less time than waiting for clueless Microsoft to come up with a working form of the foldable device. Microsoft to think about post smartphone is ok but this is just a dream wont come true. Not with the current leadership.
  • Does this big picture view include Verizon?
  • Samsung and pixel phone use esim, do u think verizon included?
  • I worry this is going to be a step backward for consumers, both in cost and convenience. The article says an eSIM can hold data for multiple accounts.  My understanding is that it can only hold one account at a time.  Yes, you can switch which carrier's data is on the eSIM, but each time you switch you delete the previous carrier's data. Why does this distinction matter? Because it means you have to involve the carrier with every change, even with previously activated devices. And that's likely to involve a fee.  Watch the first video in the article.  It calls the service that sends the SIM data to your eSIM a vendor for a reason.  The SIM vendor is distinct from the carrier, and they won't provide services for free. The carrier will be charged for requesting a data push to your eSIM, and they'll certainly pass those costs on to you. I'll be shocked if carriers don't end up charging for every little change you ever make, whether its moving to a new phone, swapping between phones you've already activated, rotating between carriers on a single device, or whatever else.
  • Here in Australia I regualy swap sims for the latest competitive monthly plan and with no additional fees or charges, saves me lots of $. (Competition is great, for my phone I currently pay $10 per month for unlimited calls and text but only 1gb of data-I mainly use Wi fi) How is this e sim situation any different? Need more data? Want a better offer? Press a button and start a fresh. Sounds easy, simple and convienient to me.          
  • I regualy swap sims...How is this e sim situation any different?
    The difference is that with eSIM you have to involve the carrier EVERY TIME you swap a sim.  Today that's not the case.  Right now, once you have a sim working in a particular phone you never have to contact the carrier again, no matter how many times you've swapped other sims in and out.  With eSIM that's not the case.  You (or your device) will have to contact the carrier every time you swap which carrier's data is on the eSIM.  That's because swapping a physical sim doesn't cause you to lose the sim's data (it's still on the physical sim, the sim just isn't in the phone).  Swapping a dynamic sim does wipe out the sim's data.  It's the electronic version of having to go in to the carrier's store to get a new sim every time.
  • This matter of always connected pcs has been going on for more than a year now and that's one of Microsoft 's biggest weaknesses; late delivery! By the time they bring this to market other swift and nimble companies like Samsung who don't care if their prototype bursts in flames would have beaten Microsoft to their own idea. I actually foresee the competition coming up with eSIM smartphone with PC like computing power and launching while we still lebel Microsoft's always connected initiative as "coming soon" !
  • Dude Jason, where the hell you been. For a moment I thought you lost the faith, and with all the negativity around here (mostly justified one way or another IMO), I was thinking we're getting close to cliff jumping territory.
  • I was wonderful where he was as well. I was about to Ask Dan....yes, submit a question to Dan about Jason. :) Seriously though, the decline of Warditorials reminded me of my decline in writing for MyNokiaBlog and Geek On Gadgets....the companies and things I cared about left me....and took the passion with them. The companies forced me to move on as there wasn't really anything to write about that drew the passion for writing out of me like Nokia and Symbian, Maemo, Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile did. I don't have any zeal to write about Android and iOS and I have an iPhone 7 and Note 8. No willing mind, no desire in my heart. Jason, I'm glad to see that you are still writing in some capacity. Keep up the great work.
  • Thanks Deacoclgi. I appreciate the support and hope to continue providing unique Microsoft/industry analysis.
  • Hi drewsuruncle. I'm still here and I have certainly not lost the faith. :-) I still believe the ongoing analysis that I have shared over the years regarding Microsoft's mobile strategy: a pocketable PC with telephony and an inking focus, is on course. I know many folks over the years couldn't see it but with Andromeda just around the corner the strategy is all but undeniable. Of course anything can happen, as I've shared in the past, it like McLaren, can be canceled and even if its introduced without a hitch, success as a new category isn't guaranteed. But my argument has always been the existence of the strategy, not the guarantee of its success. ANd for that, drew, I have definitely not lost the faith. As I've written about it long before details became more evident, and as I've continued writing about it as more details (patents, sources) reveal more, I hope to write about it once the device hits the market as well. :-) I plan on hanging around to write about not only that but the range of other topics that I have been covering as well! Thanks again for the support. I really appreciate it!
  • There is no mobile future fire Microsoft; Satya believed their mobile future is on Android and Apple. He and his staff have encouraged all former WM users to move to those platforms.
  • I recently read about iSIM designed by ARM as a successor to eSIM. Also, do we have dual eSIM yet?
  • Its difficult not to think about Xbox...that would be a huuge win for the platform... something like a USB dongle for the console...
  • If that was so carriers like Sprint world have had it. It is about portability and privacy. I don't but into this one Jason.
  • This would only be useful to me if it could allow me to utilise the same carrier information on multiple devices. Otherwise, it's not any issue at all to get a son per device, I'm not a traveller or a professional that requires multiple carriers/numbers for a single device.
  • Dumb question; different carriers using different bands, etc. Doesn't this mean that eSIM will need to be compatible with everything in order to give us the ability to switch that we want? That means that phones are more expensive going forward. That is a lot of different radios in a device.