Last week I wrote about the long lines for unlocked iPhones in all London's Apple Stores. A number of US passports were being brandished at the head of the Westfield Mall queue when I passed by. This tells me there's a brisk trade in phones going back the USA where they can be used on any GSM network, not just on AT&T's. More to the point, perhaps, is that unlocked phones enable users to swap SIMs when travelling abroad; it's something that business travellers in Europe now do almost by routine as a means of freeing themselves from operators' exorbitant roaming costs.
Since last week I've paid a number of visits to my three nearest Apple Stores and can confirm that these lines of buyers, mostly foreigners I would judge, are snapping up phones by the bagload. Cash is very much in evidence, whereas normally the Apple Store is firmly in credit-card land. Yesterday I watched a rather scruffy young man of middle-eastern appearance, probably a courier, brandishing the biggest wad of £50 notes I've ever seen. As any Briton will tell you, £20 is the highest currency note in general circulation and fifties are seen very rarely; if I get a couple of fifties in the course of a year I'd be surprised (at least in the circles in which I move). But this guy was peeling off £50 bills ("that will be just ten for that 16GB phone, if you please") in a grand manner.
This is clearly big business and couriers are doing the rounds of all the Apple Stores snapping up as many phones as they can get before shipping them home to distant lands where iPhones are locked, not available or simply too expensive.
Can we blame Apple for this? I suspect we can because they have a different policy for every country depending on agreements with local mobile companies. As a result, the market is distorted. Most people abhor the restrictive practice of locking phones; and no more so, I suspect, than Americans who have been stuck with one carrier for years. Apple is strong enough now to lay down the law with service providers. They should be able to sell unlocked phones in every market.
Then, the choice would be clear. Pay £500 to £600 for an unlocked phone or get one for less by signing a long contract. Whatever happens, even if the contracted user changes to another carrier in a few months, the original discounting company has a secure income for 12, 18 or 24 months. It's simple, really, and it will come to pass in the end. Long may these queues extend because it is an example of people voting with their feet and establishing a free economy.