Asked the Magic 8-Ball today if we in the USA would ever see iPhones running on anything other than AT&T's network? M8 thought for a moment, then announced "Signs are encouraging."
One such sign comes from financial analyst Gene Munster, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray. Noting how Apple is starting to veer away from exclusive carrier contracts abroad (notably in France — perhaps so that more cell companies can deal with exploding iPhones? — as well as the recent nonexclusive deal with China Unicom), and thus increasing its market share, Munster theorizes that a break from the current Death-Star-only plan is inevitable. Verizon, currently the US's largest wireless operator, would be the most likely benefactor of the Apple/AT&T divorce, even taking into account the need to retrofit iPhones to run on Big V's CDMA network.
Another incentive for Apple to branch out could come from Washington: as we speak, Congress, the FCC, and the Justice Department are casting a baleful eye on cellphone exclusivity in general. While every carrier wants phones they can call their own, the smash success of the iPhone 3G makes the Death Star perhaps the biggest target; making the iPhone available to other carriers would reduce a good deal of the heat in AT&T's kitchen.
Of course, the downside to all this is that AT&T would lose the cash cow that has propelled it to the top of the cell phone wars (lousy 3G network not withstanding). But the bottom line is that, some day, AT&T will no longer have sole bragging rights to the iPhone. It's not a matter of "if," it's a matter of "when."