Last month, it seemed all but certain that Apple was going to try to kill the cottage industry of people “unlocking” iPhones from their official carriers, and then reselling them, often for big bucks overseas. Now it looks like it’s game-on again — but would-be buyers will have to shell out a few hundred dollars extra.
How was Apple ever going to choke the unlocking biz? By letting its carrier partner AT&T (T) subsidise the phones down to $199, and requiring that buyers activate them with 2-year contracts before leaving the store.
Now AT&T says that “in the future,” it will offer a “no-contract-required” iPhone. An 8-gigabyte unit will cost $599, and a 16-gig model will cost $699 — or $400 more than the subsidized gadgets. (AT&T should even make a profit.) We assume a similar deal will be available at Apple stores, too, and we already know it’ll be available in Italy, where an 8-gig iPhone will run $790 and a 16-gig will cost $950.
Will these pricey, no-contract phones come pre-unlocked so they’ll work on any carrier — like T-Mobile in the U.S., or any GSM provider abroad? Maybe: Carriers’ justification for locking phones is that they’ve paid several hundred dollars to subsidise them, so they should be locked to their network. But probably not here, at least. AT&T does have a multi-year exclusive deal to sell the iPhone in the U.S., so we can’t see them handing out unlocked phones just yet. No, AT&T rep Michael Coe tells the AP. The contract-free phone will still be locked to AT&T.
That hasn’t stopped people before. We assume hackers will figure out how to unlock and activate these phones just as easily as they did the last time. After that, the only hurdle is the extra $400 — and whatever other buying requirements AT&T and Apple come up with, like a throat swab or urine test.
Will people still even want unlocked iPhones, now that Apple will be selling subsidized phones in more than 70 countries? Absolutely — some people will still want to pick and choose their carrier — and some will want to use the iPhone in countries where it’s not on sale yet, like China. And as simple arithmetic tells us, it’s still cheaper for an Italian to buy a no-contract iPhone in the U.S. ($499) than in Italy ($790).