Interactivity, as you've no doubt heard, is one of the defining credos of communications in the 21st century, thanks to the internet and the rise of the Web 2.0 paradigm. The appeal of Web 2.0 is fairly obvious - it allows users to interact with media, to the point of editing, mashing and remixing it to suit their own tastes, or amuse their friends, or whatever. Some of the same spirit now seems to be spilling over into the hardware side of the coin - specifically, mobile phones.
Consider the iPhone, which is now finally coming to select bits of Asia Pacific via Vodafone, which will be selling the handset in ten markets, including India, Australia and New Zealand. No word yet on just when they'll go on sale, or - most importantly for consumers - if they'll be locked to the Vodafone network. But the fact that people are asking the latter question at all is a sign of greater consumer awareness over the practice of phone-locking.
Phone-locking in general has, of course, been around for ages, and for a number of commercial reasons, such as bundling apps designed to work with the cellco's branded service portal, or even just to ensure that consumers don't jump ship with a subsidized phone.
However, the arrival of the iPhone has not only magnified the issue via anti-competition lawsuits, it's also sparked something that no other locked phone has ever inspired - a cottage industry of goods and services designed to unlock it. Google "iPhone unlock" and you can easily find tips and tricks to getting your new iPhone onto the network of your choice.
One of the more interesting solutions, spotted on USBfever.com, is an unlocking gadget guaranteed to unlock the iPhone. According to the product blurb, it's a 0.10-mm-thin flexible printed circuit with an RISC microcontroller mounted on it. Cut the SIM card (which is harder than it sounds), slip the unlocking device between your SIM and the phone's SIM slot, and you're done. Not only is your iPhone unlocked, your hardware/firmware warranty is still valid.
I don't know if it actually works or not. But another company, UK-based 24/7 Mobile Solutions, has a similar product out called SIMable, though it doesn't work with iPhones (yet). Either way, it'll cost you around $25 to find out.
What's notable is that these products aren't just aimed at iPhones, but any locked phone with a SIM card in it. Go to sites like TravelInsider.com and there's a whole section on the site with an FAQ on unlocking GSM phones.
Maybe a consumer backlash against locked phones was only a matter of time, and the arrival of the iPhone is coincidental. In New Zealand, for instance, Vodafone is experiencing uncommon resistance to phone locking, which it began doing at the start of May. As the country's sole GSM player, Vodafone never saw a need to lock phones as there was no rival for consumers to switch to, but now that incumbent Telecom is going GSM, as is New Zealand Communications, Vodafone has decided on a change of policy. Its excuse is that it wants to "protect the customers' experience of the Vodafone brand", according to New Zealand Herald tech blogger Peter Griffin. Vodafone users are complaining anyway - especially the ones who want to use prepaid SIMs while traveling overseas to save money on exorbitant roaming charges, but can't because the handset won't let them.
Ten days after Vodafone New Zealand's policy kicked in, Telecom's mobile chief upped the ante and promised publicly that Telecom's upcoming GSM service would not feature locked handsets.
That might be too idiosyncratic an example, but why not‾ Users accept phone locks to a point if cellcos give them enough value in exchange, but once the lock becomes an obstacle, consumers aren't nearly so appreciative. And that's no way to build customer brand loyalty - especially when customers have the tools at their disposal to fight back. So whatever commercial justifications remain for locking handsets, perhaps it may well be time for cellcos to rethink that strategy and pay attention to how their own customers feel about it.