This past month, Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) new iPhone SE and updated 9.7-inch iPad Pro were the toast of the tech world, even as they also served as possible harbingers of slowing creativity at the tech giant.
Without question, the newly minted iPhone SE has garnered the bulk of the media coverage in the wake of Apple's event. However, Apple's revamped iPads also contain one subtle, yet interesting adaptation that could signal a coming technological shift for Apple products, one whose ripple effects could extend far beyond Cupertino.
SIM cards don't necessarily make for front-page news stories. However, these tiny chip cards serve as the critical bridge between all cellular devices and the carriers that support them. As such, they act as the main point of connection between tech and telecom; between consumers and carriers. And though few media outlets have covered it, the freshly minted, cellular-enabled iPad Pros contain a new Apple-branded embedded SIM card.
For context, Apple included an Apple-produced SIM card with the Wi-Fi and cellular editions of the iPad Air 2 last year. However, Apple allowed the SIM card in the iPad Air 2 to be removed, which allowed some carriers, like Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ), to force consumers to use its own locked SIM cards in order to use their iPads on the company's cellular network.
Unlike its predecessor, Apple's new iPad Pros feature a fully embedded version of its Apple SIM card in addition to the traditional slot where consumers can insert any telecom providers' SIM card. This, in effect, allows consumers to be able to operate cell-enabled iPads as fully unlocked devices, though some carriers are working to counter this move. While U.S. carriers Sprint and T-Mobile support the move, AT&T includes its own locked SIM card for cell-enabled iPads purchased in its retail stores. Similarly, Verizon requires a separate SIM card to access its network. Verizon also disables the embedded Apple SIM card.
So, why are some of the most powerful wireless carriers fighting Apple's move here so vigorously?
Sign of things to come?
The core question is does Apple's move reflect the beginning of a wider strategy to unlock all of its devices?
In the U.S. particularly, wireless carriers play a relatively prominent role in determining which networks consumers can and cannot use. According to researcher CIRP, 57% of all U.S. mobile devices were purchased through a carrier's store as of the end of 2014. Though admittedly somewhat dated, this certainly speaks to the outsized influence, and means through which, wireless carriers exert control over the market. Controlling a major piece of the distribution channel enables carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon, to sell iPhones and iPads that come with their own locked SIM cards.
As noted above, Verizon and AT&T are still doing so with the new iPad Pro. However, the general trend in the industry has gravitated increasingly toward unlocked smartphones and cell-enabled tablets. For example, Alphabet's Project Fi cellular service allows consumers to dynamically switch between Sprint's network, T-Mobile's network, and Wi-Fi all in real time. What's more, Apple's new iPhone installment plan similarly sells unlocked iPhones, though devices purchased through carriers typically come with their own locked SIM cards.
The direction the industry has taken appears clear, and Apple's move with the iPad Pro might signal an increased commitment to further integrate unlocked devices as part of its overall strategy, which would certainly prove to be a win for consumers.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Andrew Tonner owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares) and Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.