Apple unlocks the iPhone 4: Winners and losers

At long last, the tech giant is offering an untethered iPhone to U.S. customers — though the price is high, and the benefits are questionable

Apple has unlocked the iPhone 4 so that customers can own the popular smartphone without being tied to a particular carrier. But it's not all good news.
(Image credit: Emily Anne Epstein/Corbis)

Apple proved the rumors true on Tuesday, when it began selling unlocked iPhone 4s in the U.S. For the not-so-low price of $649 (for a 16 GB phone) or $749 (32 GB), U.S. customers can now get Apple's mega-popular smartphone without signing a two-year contract with AT&T or Verizon. Besides paying a lot more (an iPhone 4 starts at $199 if you sign a contract), owners of unlocked phones won't be all that free, since the iPhones will only work on AT&T or T-Mobile (though not on T-Mobile's 3G network). These caveats have left tech bloggers scratching their heads. Just who wins and loses with Apple's latest offering? Here, a brief guide:


Apple's bottom line

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

This is a ploy by Apple to "offload" its stock of iPhone 4s before the iPhone 5 comes out, likely this September, says Jonny Evans at Computerworld. "Recent market reports have suggested iPhone sales slowed down during the current quarter in anticipation of new model iPhones," so this is a savvy business move that could gives sales of the latest model a much-needed boost.

International travelers

The prices may seem high, but for those who travel abroad, the unlocked phone has some big benefits, says Sarah Silbert at Laptop. Now, these travelers "can take their phone with them across borders without having to pay excessive roaming charges." It's as simple as popping in SIM cards from Apple-supported GSM carriers all over the world.

Prepaid-phone users

The unlocked iPhone 4 opens up Apple's smartphone to those who buy prepaid cellphone plans instead of signing carrier contracts. "Not all prepay users are drug dealers or paupers," says Charlie Sorrel at Wired. "Some of us just don't use a phone enough to justify a full monthly plan, but would sure like to have a great internet-connected phone in our pockets."



The "biggest loser here" is AT&T, says Annkur at OnlyGizmos. First, Apple broke the carrier's iPhone monopoly by selling a Verizon version. And now it's letting even more competitors in on the action.

T-Mobile customers

People looking to get a T-mobile iPhone "will have to sacrifice a lot here," says Annkur. The unlocked iPhone only supports AT&T standards for 3G, so T-Mobile customers will only be able to use their carrier's slower EDGE network, not 3G. This is puzzling, and leaves consumers with "limited choice."

Customers' wallets

As much as I like the idea of owning my phone outright and not being tied to a particular carrier, "it's nearly impossible to justify the unlocked iPhone 4 on economic grounds when you do the math," says Harry McCracken at Technologizer. In the U.S., the phone is really only designed to work on AT&T's network, so unless you're a frequent international traveler, it doesn't make financial sense. If you signed a two-year contract with AT&T to get a locked phone, then paid to cancel said contract, you'd still pay less than buying an unlocked phone upfront. "Maybe I'm just being difficult," but given how much cheaper iPhones are in Europe, and how many more carrier options consumers there have, this makes me an "unhappy camper."

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.