Portless phones: Dumb gimmick or inevitable future?

Meizu

Meizu and Vivo, both of which recently announced phones with no ports, are seeking the answer to an age-old question: do people prefer function or form? The answer, as always, is “it depends,” but in this case Meizu and Vivo are asking consumers to vote with their wallets. Should they?

In September 2016, Apple removed the headphone jack from the iPhone and the internet lost its mind. A number of scathing editorials burned red hot across the web, with the move called “user-hostile and stupid.”

The trusty headphone jack has been a staple in consumer electronics since it was designed in the 1950s. The standard 3.5mm jack got its start with transistor radios, and it later showed up in nearly every type of media device over a six-decade span, including WalkMan radios, cassette and CD players, laptops and PCs, mobile phones and tablets, gaming consoles, and much more. The jack is functional across devices and form factors, making it a must-have. Apple disagrees.

“Maintaining an ancient, single-purpose, analog, big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium,” said Phil Schiller, Apple COO, at the iPhone 7’s launch. Schiller claimed Apple needed to lose the headphone jack in order to waterproof the iPhone 7, and even said it took “courage” to be among the first phone makers to take this step. The company continues to sell lots of iPhones.

USB-C, headphone jack: Samsung S9 lilac and Google Pixel 3 with bases showing to reveal headphone jack and lack thereof.

Any port in a storm

Like it or not, Apple set a precedent and other phone makers followed. Google ditched the headphone jack in favor of USB-C audio, as did Motorola, Huawei, and OnePlus, among others. In each case, the phone maker provided a pair of USB-C headphones or a 3.5mm-to-USB-C adapter. The trend is slowly catching on, but that doesn’t mean people are happy about it.

What Meizu and Vivo are doing is next-level user hostility.

The front and back of the Meizu Zero. Meizu

The Meizu Zero has absolutely no ports. None. It drops the headphone jack, the USB-C port, the SIM card slot, the memory card slot. Need to power up your phone? The Zero sports wireless charging. Want to listen to music? Bluetooth, my friend. What about transferring files? Use the cloud! Need wireless service? An eSIM is inside. While Meizu has an answer to all these nagging everyday needs, you shouldn’t be convinced of Meizu’s logic. At least, not yet.

“Designers dream of clean, port-free lines, but smartphones need to live in the real world, where consumers cannot always expect wireless connections,” quipped Avi Greengart, research director, consumer platforms & devices at GlobalData, to Android Authority. “The loss of the headphone jack at least can be countered by dongles, but until wireless charging spots are ubiquitous, asking consumers to go without a charging cable — which is also used for data transfer and other purposes — simply is not practical.”

Mainstream, here we come?

Charging pads may be available at some Starbucks locations and in some cars, but wireless power is still a niche technology that has yet to be widely adopted. Until every phone ships with a wireless charger by default, consumers will continue to expect to plug their phones in for charging purposes. Moreover, wired charging is still faster than wireless charging.

The idea of phones without physical SIM cards is also problematic. The promise of eSIM, wherein an electronic SIM card can be programmed for network access, has yet to be fully realized. It should be easy, but apparently it’s not.

Apple’s rollout of eSIM in the iPhone Xs and Xs Max, for example, was slow to be adopted by carriers in the U.S. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless added support for the tech months after the phones reached store shelves. Sprint still doesn’t support Apple’s eSIM. Multiply this by hundreds of carriers around the world and you see where this is going.

Then there’s the Meizu Zero’s lack of physical buttons. The Zero features pressure-sensitive edges that are used to manage functions such as adjusting the volume. HTC’s U12 flagship phone was largely panned by reviewers due to its incredibly frustrating pressure-sensitive buttons. Can Meizu succeed where HTC failed? Hard to say.

Like it or not, phone makers are headed in this direction.

“Apple designers eventually hope to remove most of the external ports and buttons on the iPhone, including the charger,” reported Bloomberg last year. Apple weighed making this radical move while developing the 2017 iPhone X. It later scaled back those ambitions due to the cost of wireless charging. That means we’ll see an iPhone with no ports or buttons at some point, and we can expect the same from Apple’s competitors.

Meizu and Vivo are clearly way ahead of the curve, dancing on the bleeding edge for the spectacle alone. Will people buy these portless phones? Sure. Should they? Probably not yet, but we all will at some point down the road.

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Ugh, Android Q could give carriers more powerful ways to SIM lock phones

  • New Android Q code suggests the upcoming OS version will give carriers more control over SIM-locking phones.
  • Carriers could, hypothetically, lock out the second SIM tray in a dual-SIM phone if the first SIM isn’t approved.
  • Android Q could also make it possible for a carrier to blacklist other carriers — even if that carrier uses the same network.

Last week, we got our first look at what Android Q might have in store for us when it launches sometime this year. There were some exciting things seen in the source code, including the potential for a system-wide dark mode and better control over Android permissions.

However, there are some newly-discovered bits of code which aren’t nearly as exciting. In fact, some of them will likely make Android users pretty angry.

According to Android’s Gerritt source code (via 9to5Google), there are four new commits labeled “Carrier restriction enhancements for Android Q,” all of which appear to give carriers more fine-tuned control over SIM locking smartphones.

Editor’s Pick

One of the potential outcomes of these code snippets is the ability for carriers to lock out the second SIM tray of a dual-SIM phone. This could be powerful for carriers that want to keep tighter control over devices. For example, a carrier could create a rule that in order for the second slot of a SIM tray to be active, the first slot must be filled with an active SIM from that carrier.

Another outcome is that carriers might be able to be much more specific about which other carriers the phone will or will not work on, essentially allowing the creation of a blacklist (or whitelist) within the phone itself. This could be advantageous to carriers because it could allow them to block out MVNOs which operate on the same network.

For example, a smartphone that’s SIM-locked to AT&T right now should work on Cricket, which is owned by AT&T and uses the same towers. With Android Q, AT&T could block a SIM-locked phone from using Cricket if it felt so inclined.

Although we’ve yet to see the final code of Android Q — and thus aren’t sure if these commits will make it to the stable release — it does seem to suggest that there will soon be even more incentives for buying your smartphones completely unlocked in 2019 and beyond.

NEXT: Average MVNO service significantly worse than service with main carrier

eSIM: Pros and cons of the new way to connect

Infineon The eSIM chip itself is tiny, and is installed directly into the smartphone’s circuitry

SIM cards have been in our cellphones for more than 25 years. The only thing that’s really changed over the decades is the size of the card itself. SIM cards have made it somewhat cumbersome to connect to a service provider, given the need to have them physically present, plus they’re easily damaged and lost.

A new system’s been around for a little while and smartphone industry players are starting to get on board — enter the eSIM.

Android Authority‘s Bob Myers did a great job running through the history of the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM), along with the new eSIM, where the “e” stands for “embedded,” meaning the SIM function is embedded into the circuitry of the smartphone. This was set down by the GSMA, the international association of cell network operators and related businesses. The eSIM might be a chip, but it works more like temporary storage now. It’s reprogrammable, and can be provisioned over the air without any physical modifications.

There are some major pros and cons to the new eSIM approach, mainly where we consumers are concerned. Let’s take a look.

eSIM Pros:

It’s more reliable

You can’t lose your eSIM, it doesn’t need to be cut to an exact size, and it won’t wear out. You don’t need to go to a store to buy one, or even pay for one, like the bad old days when companies would charge for SIM cards. No need to wait for a company to send one out either.

Remote provisioning

People have been using eSIMs in the wild for a little while now and experiences have been good. With the Google Pixel 2, Project Fi activates almost instantly. Switching between networks that support eSIMs, which are increasing, means no need to switch between old SIM cards and new SIM cards. Remote provisioning make the switch quick and painless.

A closeup of the SIM card tray seen during a OnePlus 6 teardown.

One less ingress point, plus space saving

This one benefits makers directly, but it will flow down to consumers as well. Manufacturers have gradually cut down SIM card size, using the saved space for other useful components. Removing the components to read a SIM card, and the SIM card slot itself, removes a handful of complexities in smartphone design, and removes a big hole in a device.

Switching to eSim means there’s one less places to worry about water and dust resistance, which helps improve IP ratings and general water splashproof-ness. Companies justified removing the headphone jack for space reasons, so removing the physical SIM card space may give us more room for new technology.

MIKI Yoshihito

You don’t need the little SIM-ejector anymore

With a few billion smartphones now in existence, there’s also a few billion of those little pokers for ejecting physical SIM cards. Even with so many around, you can never find one when you need it. Even the guy who normally carries around a bunch of them has lost them gradually over the years, stolen by those he thought he could trust. Now that’s not an issue!

Oh, and there won’t be a need to jam other sharp objects in your phone when you lose the poker too.

eSIM Cons:

Switching phones is a little more complicated

Tech reviewers will change SIMs at the drop of a hat between phones, and for everyone else, it’s always been useful to pull out the SIM card and remove a significant amount of personal information. Of course, phones these days are full of images, video, music, photos, passwords, notes, settings, and so on, but the SIM had plenty on it as well. Disposing of a phone or passing a phone down the line to friends or family will take a little bit more effort in order to wipe the eSIM properly.

Currently, there aren’t any dual eSIM phones either — just support for a normal SIM and an eSIM. Dual eSIMs seem likely in the future, but we haven’t seen any yet.

Android 9 Pie review Quick Settings Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Cellular, Vibrate

No disconnection from cellular networks

Now that an eSIM is always present, you’ll always be connected to a network once you’re provisioned. That makes phones far more trackable. Any device with just an eSIM will constantly be active and on a network. For most law-abiding people of democratic states that’s not an issue, but there are plenty of regions in the world where people may not want to be tracked by governments or intelligence. Yes, it’s a little bit far removed from what most people deal with, but it could be a problem.

Hacking

Another problem for some will be hacking. I don’t pretend to know where the battle between hackers and eSIM security stands. Embedded though it may be, an eSIM is a physical chip, which makes hacking it very difficult. However, operators will need to be concerned about provisioning and exchanging configuration data between their network and the phone, even if it is encrypted. An eSIM offers one more potential exploit for a hacker, even if it’s a tiny one.

Overall

The move towards the eSIM is another sign of the times, where technology could improve our lives — with a few side effects. It won’t be too long before explaining to another generation how physical chips were necessary to receive 180-character text messages will make it seem like we lived in the dark ages.

Have you tried an eSIM yet? Are you wary, or ready for the new technology?