Apple's iPhone hasn't made an obvious dent in the market share of either handset competitors or carriers that compete with AT&T. But it has hit those other companies with something else unexpected -- and unwelcome: The iPhone has sharply raised consumer awareness about the issue of locked cell phones.
Most U.S. carriers profit from consumer ignorance about the locking issue. But the iPhone controversy is changing all that.
Millions of cell phone users are suddenly talking about cell phone locking and asking themselves, "Why is my phone locked?" And that's a good thing. It's time consumers demand unlocked cell phones from their carriers.
What's a SIM card?
A SIM card, or Subscriber Identity Module, is a tiny, removable memory chip used in a Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) phone associated with a specific account and phone number. A SIM card holds a unique identification number (International Mobile Subscriber Identity, or IMSI), a unique cell phone number, plus potentially your address book, some of your text messages and other information.
Theoretically, you should be able to remove a SIM card, place it into another GSM phone and make a call from your own cell phone number. Calls made using your SIM card are billed to your account, regardless of whose handset you use to make the call.
But thanks to carriers, it usually doesn't work that way, at least in the U.S.
Your phone is probably locked
The iPhone is and will be sold through a single carrier in each of the countries where Apple chooses to sell it. In some countries, such as France, locking is illegal. Apple announced this week that Orange SA will be the exclusive iPhone carrier in France and will sell a locked iPhone, plus a more expensive unlocked iPhone in that country.
This stark fact makes it clear to everyone that locking and unlocking is a mere carrier choice, a deliberate snippet of code whose sole purpose is to limit your freedom and choice so the carrier and handset maker can make more money.
Apple isn't alone in locking phones, either. U.S. carriers vary wildly in the degree to which they lock phones.
Some SIM cards are relatively open, run Java and are based on standards. But many are proprietary "native" cards, which run vendor- or carrier-specific software that deliberately limits their use in some way.
A full SIM card lock ties a SIM card to one specific phone. If you get a new phone, you need to get a new SIM card, too. A "service provider lock" makes phones work only with SIM cards provided by a particular carrier. Other locks can block use abroad or with other kinds of SIM cards.
Locking is easy for the carriers to do. They simply choose the type and degree of locking. And unlocking is easy, too.
If consumers remain ignorant and demand little from their carriers, we'll get locked phones and limited options. But if we demand unlocked phones, we'll force change in the cell phone experience that benefits everybody.
Locking a phone in order to steeply discount it but prevent it from being sold at a higher price is legitimate. But carriers should offer nondiscounted unlocked phones as an option, and customers should demand them.
What's so great about unlocked phones?
In general, locked phones benefit the carriers at the expense of the consumers. But unlocked phones can provide a huge range of benefits.
An unlocked phone is handy for, say, traveling abroad, where you can buy a local, prepaid SIM card to use in your regular phone.
Unlocked phones and carriers that support them provide users with far more handset choice. This is especially appealing in the U.S., where phone locking has encouraged carriers to get away with offering very limited range and quality of handsets. Do you want to use Casio's rugged G'zOne phone? If you're not on Verizon, forget it. But in an unlocked world, you could choose practically any phone and use it on almost any carrier.
Also: New gadgets are coming out that aren't cell phones per se, but use SIM cards anyway -- everything from listening devices to security cameras.
The cell phone world is changing fast. The era of one phone and one SIM card for each user should soon come to an end.
A new age of unlocked phones
Over the next five years, we'll see single phones that support multiple carriers and two cell phone numbers. We'll also see people with more than one cell phone, preferably all tied to a single phone number and user account.
Samsung plans to start selling a new phone called the DuoS D880 in November in some European markets. The "DuoS" refers to the phone's capacity for two simultaneous SIM cards, even from two different carriers. Software installed on the phone tells you which phone number is ringing and which you're using to dial calls. You can use them simultaneously and even assign unique ring tones to each number.
Dual SIM cards can be useful because you can use both work and personal numbers without carrying two phones. When you get a new job, you can just swap in a new SIM card and keep carrying your own phone and using your own personal number. If you visit a foreign country a lot, you can buy one SIM card for that country and another one for home.
The DuoS D880 isn't the first cell phone to support two simultaneous SIM cards. Plus, there are hacks and adapters available online for do-it-yourself enthusiasts. But dual SIM cards are rare. I think that's about to change.
So is the number of cell phones people will carry.
As handset makers provide increasing choice, people will want it all. For example, if you pay hundreds of dollars for a beautiful, large media phone, like the iPhone or HTC Touch, do you really want to carry that to the beach or while you're training for a marathon? The ideal scenario would be to have two or three phones and just grab the one appropriate for the occasion without worrying about what number or carrier account you're using.
Personally, I'd love to own three phones -- a giant media phone, a tiny-as-possible phone, plus a ruggedized phone like the G'zOne when I'm hiking, sailing or otherwise putting the phone at risk.
I should be able to do this without paying for three already-overpriced accounts and managing three different cell phone numbers.
Phone hackers and creepy cell phone stalkers use a technique called SIM cloning to copy SIM cards in order to use another person's cell phone account. Carriers could provide authorized and registered cloned SIM cards -- or second and unique SIM cards that access the same phone number and user account.
I don't care how they do it, as long as they do it. Sure, they can charge a little more for this service, but not as much as full additional accounts.
We cell-phone users should demand fully unlocked cell phones and reward carriers who provide unlocked phones with our business.
And carriers need to prepare for the future. Nonphone SIM card devices, widespread use of multiple-SIM phones and multiple phone SIMS are all coming. And customers will demand freedom and choice.
As for the iPhone? Well, Apple always thinks different. The iPhone may someday be the last locked cell phone you can buy. Unless you live in France.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact him at email@example.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.
This story, "Consumers Want Unlocked Phones" was originally published by Computerworld.