(Cross posted at the OPL news page)

On Monday, I promised to try and untangle the various reading technologies that were on display at CES and put forward a prediction about the future. In the process of writing that article, I realized that having that discussion required first delving into a number of different technologies and trends. Rather than writing a gigantic article, I’ve decided to break things up into a series of (hopefully) short posts.

Over the coming days this blog will tackle subjects like GSM telephony, Smartphones, Tablet PCs, and Display and Touchscreen technologies. Whenever possible I’ll try to relate the topic de jour back to eReaders/ing. Once we’ve got that ground covered, we’ll circle back to why I see the future of electronic reading intimately tied up with smartphones and tablets.

For the moment though, I’d like to begin with a discussion of the GMS telephony standard.

GSM and SIM cards

GMS (Global System for Mobile communications) is the telephony standard that roughly 80% of the world’s cellphones run on. While not been the primary standard for mobile telephony in the US, it is becoming more and more available. AT&T and T-Mobile phones are already GMS and Verizon and Sprint are beginning to offer GSM options.

Here’s the rule of thumb: Whenever a #G, such as 3G or 4G comes up in relation to a product, you’re dealing with a GSM device.

Sim CardFor consumers, there are two primary advantages GSM has over its primary competitor, CDMA. First, a GSM cell phone will work just about anywhere in the world. The second advantage of GMS is the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card. Unlike many American phones, GMS devices are typically not tied (or locked) to a specific company or national network. In order to be used a company specific SIM card (see picture to right) must be inserted into the phone. The advantage of this format is that one can easily move a device from one GSM provider to another one. Additionally, when travelling internationally, you can choose to purchase a cheap SIM card from a local phone company (not unlike a calling card) rather than opting for expensive international calling plans from your home cell service provider.

The “mobility” of GSM devices has led to the development of a different style of mobile marketplace outside the US. Americans are used to our mobile equipment purchases being subsidized by cellphone provider (i.e. – “Sign up for a new contract and get the cell phone for free”). In turn, the provider makes the subsidy back, over time, via the service contract (this is the “razor blade” model). Since the subsidized phone was locked to their network, there was no concerns about the consumer breaking their contract and jumping to another network with the “free” phone. Not surprisingly, as phones become more “mobile” (or unlocked) the penalty for early termination continues to increase.

In Europe, because unlocked phones are so common, there has been less focus on subsidizing the phone purchase. Hence in Europe, and many other places around the world, the cellphone is treated as a traditional consumer electronic good that one expects to pay full price for.

What’s notable is that SIM card slots are beginning to turn up on devices other than phones. For example a number of Tablet PCs on display at this year’s consumer electronics show incorporated GSM technology via SIM card readers. Since GSM can be used for network data transfer, integration of the cards doesn’t necessarily mean that they are intended to be phones. However, GSM plus a mobile OS like Android means that suddenly one’s tablet can also a phone. And while a $500+ price point for a “super” smart phone might seem out of line for an American, if you live in other parts of the world it will be nothing out of the ordinary.

While GSM may not seem the most obvious place to start building towards the future of eReading, it’s a technology that enables many eReaders (including the Kindle) and phones to access eBook content from the net. And, judging from what we saw at CES, it’s going to be become increasingly standard on a variety of devices, suggesting that the primary way we may come to access the net is via cellphone networks.

Next Up: Smartphones