A summer romance? Geeks and unlocking the iPhone

Apparently, Britain is about to be hit by a two-week media barnstorm in anticipation of the long awaited launch of Apple’s iPhone on 9th November. Given the long dark evenings and the autumnal wet weather we probably won’t be witnessing the camping-out-in-sleeping-bags and sharing-of-thermoses outside retail stores that happened in America this summer when the product was launched. But there may be other reasons why the UK won’t be quite as head-over-heels in love with the iPhone.

The problem is with the phone aspect of iPhone rather than its other features. Firstly, there is the price: £269 plus a minimum monthly tariff of £35, which adds up to a total of £899 over an 18-month contract. Secondly, there is the fact that iPhone doesn’t support the latest, 3G, mobile phone telecommunications system, which is in widespread use throughout Europe. Finally, there is the issue of the iPhone being ‘locked’. It is the latter which is causing the most irritation amongst technology enthusiasts – to the point that Jack Schofield, writing in the Guardian a couple of week’s ago, suggested that the geeks may have finally fallen out of love with Apple.

The iPhone comes with a ready-made network account for the mobile phone part of its operation. In America this is with AT&T and when the iPhone is launched in the UK it will be with O2. The accounts aren’t cheap, and you won’t be using the latest telecoms network technology, but if you buy the iPhone you are, in effect, agreeing to be ‘locked in’ to these accounts for a period of 18 months. However, human ingenuity being what it is, it hasn’t taken long for a number of ‘hacks’ to be made available that allow the phone to be freed up from these accounts and made usable on other mobile phone networks and price plans.

There are several reasons why this is happening. Some people, who bought their iPhone whilst visiting the States, simply want to get it to work in their own country (the iPhone has initially only been available in America). Others just enjoy the technical challenge of working out how to unlock the phone. However, the most obvious motivation is cost. By unlocking their iPhones people can use other, cheaper mobile phone networks. AT&T maintain, as no doubt will O2, that their phone contract for eighteen months still has to be paid even if the phone has been unlocked and swapped to a rival network. However, this could prove tricky to enforce as it seems the phone can be unlocked before the AT&T sign-up process needs to be completed. It seems that some people may be interpreting this as opting out before the contract is effectively ‘signed’.

This has obviously not gone down well with Apple and AT&T. A couple of weeks ago, Apple released a brief statement saying that many of the unauthorised iPhone unlocking programs could cause the modified phone to become “permanently inoperable” when any future Apple software update is installed.

What Apple is in effect saying is that if you have done this to your phone there is a chance that when you try to upgrade the system with new software from Apple (and there is a new release on the way) it will be damaged and perhaps become unusable. This has obviously been a cause for concern amongst people who have unlocked their phone but would also like to upgrade to the latest Apple software.

What’s interesting about all this is that it goes to the heart of what the iPhone is for.

Most people who purchase an iPhone actually already have a perfectly adequate mobile phone. Indeed in Europe they probably have a technically better handset since iPhone does not use the latest mobile phone network system (3G). What’s attractive about the iPhone isn’t the mobile phone functionality; it’s the cutting-edge design, ground-breaking user interface and ability to handle webpage content on a decent-sized screen. Plus, for many hard-core Apple fans (pun noted but not edited), although perhaps not the general public, the chance to finally get a mobile handset with a version of the MacOS X operating system.

Indeed, one can argue that the iPhone isn’t really a phone at all. It is a portable Web browser that can provide, in theory, ‘anytime, anywhere’ access to the Internet and that is how many, especially younger, users will see it. This group of people increasingly communicates with tools that don’t involve the human voice: IM, ‘chat’, social networking etc. Indeed it was teenagers who, to the mobile phone companies’ complete surprise, drove the rapid uptake in text messaging.

The phone part of iPhone is almost an anachronism, possibly only there in order to entice the early adopters within the business community to purchase and carry it around with them.

Indeed, The iPhone comes complete with wireless access to the Internet (WiFi) and so should be capable of VoIP (voice calls over the Internet). This would allow iPhone users to make phone calls without using any of their mobile phone call minutes. If you are locked in to a mobile phone plan that includes hundreds of minutes of call time then there is no real driver to use VoIP. But if you have unlocked your phone…

Given all this, I suspect the phone part of the arrangement is purely a transitional arrangement and within a few years Wi-Fi (and its forthcoming, big brother WiMAX) will provide the necessary permanently ‘on’ wireless Internet access to allow good quality VoIP, and a plethora of other Internet-based communications. At this point, no doubt, the AT&T and O2 partnerships will have withered and Apple will finally allow the unlocking of the SIM cards. Indeed, the dam may already be bursting in Europe as Engadget report that as it is illegal to sell a ‘locked’ phone in France, and therefore Orange will make the iPhone available there unlocked. Whether this will come in time to stop the geeks falling out of love we will have to see.

The risk for Apple in getting the timing right on all this is huge. Whichever company delivers a truly mobile, universal Web access device will win big market share. Nokia have tried with their innovative, Linux-based N800, on which, incidentally, Skype (a popular form of VoIP) is available. But, meanwhile, rumours persist that Google is gearing up to deliver a phone. Google is a Web company through-and-through and I’ll bet a lunch that if a gPhone does materialise it will not be tied to a voice call, mobile phone package.


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2 Responses to “A summer romance? Geeks and unlocking the iPhone”

  1. Alan Carter-Davies Says:

    Nice Pun!
    Is this another flash in the pan. The cost of the phone makes it a toy rather than a practical mobile communication solution, especially when coupled with locking. Speaking of unlocking, the other great looking Apple toy – iPod – has the terrible iTunes as a lock in interface, didn’t take folks long to wrk round. How long before open iPhones are at car boot sales? Roll on gPhone – deffo the one to watch…

  2. pdanderson Says:

    Just a quick update to this: Google have announced that they are not planning to develop a new, physical mobile phone, but that they intend to form an alliance with a large number of partners to develop new software for phones. Further details can be found at this New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/06/technology/06google.html?ex=1352091600&en=aeacc7c31e1401ac&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

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