Will iPhones via China Mobile be unlocked?

Unlocked, semi-legal iPhones have proliferated in China since Apple failed to make a deal with a Chinese carrier. What will happen next?

Unlocked, semi-legal iPhones have proliferated in China since Apple failed to make a deal with a Chinese carrier. Now that AT&T will offer an expensive solution for those wanting iPhones in the United States on different carriers, will the unlocked market be...unlocked?

For $699, the new 16GB iPhone 3G will be available to non-AT&T customers in the United States. As I've reported, China Mobile and Apple are now in talks that are more likely to bear fruit. This post is based on a few questions I really can't answer. Let's have them.

  1. Will truly unlocked iPhones still be available in China? I put a lot of faith in the efforts of crackers to defeat whatever Apple comes up with, but I would personally be wary of getting an unlocked iPhone that might not accept upgrades, mostly because iPhone software needs upgrades. For example, I've been baffled--while using friends' phones--by the apparent impossibility of sending a vCard from one address book to another person using iPhone's mail application.
  2. If the China Mobile-Apple deal goes through, is it possible that "legitimate" iPhones will be locked to China Mobile and useless in other countries? Would top-market Chinese users, who are used to switching SIM cards at will and picking up multiple SIMs at home and in other countries (as well as in Hong Kong), stand for this? I don't know the technology well enough to answer this one.
  3. Does Apple sell unlocked iPhones anywhere on Earth? If so, I want one.
  4. And since I'm not an expert in cell phone fees, but know AT&T has raised prices for iPhone 3G service plans (and presumably for the large cost in rolling out the 3G network), is it worth $400 to get out of its clutches over two years and take on a reasonable plan with another GSM carrier in the United States? If you divide $400 by 24 months, a person would only need to find a plan that is $17/month cheaper. That doesn't seem absurd, given the $70/month plus SMS cost of the starting AT&T plan.
  5. And here's one for U.S. users. If you could buy a phone for much cheaper that was unlocked, but had to be semi-legally or illegally brought from China, would that scare off people concerned about product quality?

I'm going to e-mail one or two experts to see if I can get these questions answered, but in the meantime, feel free to speak up.

About the author

    Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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