There was a time when people’s “cool” factor was measured by how small their phones were. Innovations in hardware and manufacturing segments allowed phone makers to pack more transistors into the same form factor and as a result, phones got better and smaller.

There is now a reversal of trend of making bigger phones — mostly to offer the convenience of longer battery life and larger display. Early innovators such as Blackberry, Palm and Compaq are completely out of the game, and the current market is dominated by the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung, LG etc..People wonder, I certainly do, what smart phones will look like few years from now.

When Google initially announced their Android OS, it was intended to be completely open-source, hardware-agnostic and implicitly that it is free. Google would make the OS and control the data of the user, while phone makers could just get better at making the devices and take advantage of free software.

As it turned out, Google changed its stance significantly (though not obvious) and got into the thick of the smartphone game. At the same time, instead of being the open-source, free OS everyone could benefit from, it started playing an active role in the fiercely competitive smartphone market.

Software-defined everything

Elsewhere in the computer industry, we are seeing the early days of software defined computing or software defined datacenters. Why can’t we have software-defined phones? As much as buying, changing, upgrading, swapping and switching phones have become easier, we still deal with a small microchip called the SIM card. It is ugly, it is not elegant and it is the only reason people are not able to login to any phone with their credentials and make it theirs.

Imagine this — if you lost/ broke/ misplaced your phone, how about you borrowing/ buying another phone, login using your ID and password and all of a sudden that phone becomes yours? You can almost do this today, except your phone number wouldn’t move. You would have to get the so-called SIM card from your original phone (or if you lost it, you have to order another SIM from your carrier).

What if the phone number also moved along with everything else?

The SIM card

There are SIMs, micro SIMs and nano SIMs, but at its core all of them are the exact same thing — except the unused piece of plastic around the actual chip is cut off to give 3 different sizes.

In today’s context, a SIM card when bought of a store is a useless piece of plastic. It gains life when the carrier “activates” it against your cell phone number. If you get another SIM for your phone and activate it, the older SIM is automatically “deactivated”. In other words, the SIM card is a chip intended for one time use.

What if, instead of the carriers controlling, the device manufacturers embedded this circuitry into the phone itself and SIMs are re-designed to be multiple use? Your phone number would be attached to your user account and would move with you to whatever phone you choose to login to, in a given day. There are multiple advantages to the phone makers, the carriers and most importantly, the users.

There are many commercial considerations to this type of an idea — most importantly, phone prices and their subsidy can no longer be used as a trick to keep customer’s loyalty. Phones will become, like it is in many countries already, a retail item that has to be purchased at retail prices all the time.

But more than commercial aspects, the “rules of the game” should change. Phone providers should agree on a common technology, common identity framework etc..

This is the way the industry should go.

Google started paving the way to this innovation through Google Voice, but either the industry doesn’t want it, or there are genuine technical challenges or both.