It is hard to state with any certainty exactly what Apple has charted in their long term mobile business strategy, but if it is anything like the landmark success they have had over the last several years this seems to be calculated to the point of a pin.
The Apple has always reigned over the iPhone empire like a Stalinist ruler, instituting a general economic plan with only the symbol of democratic input from their customers. They have restricted content in a way that would have made the Chekov proud through the App Store, have almost breached anti-trust laws with their media focused iTunes store, and have shut out any mobile carrier competition by forcing users to sign with AT&T only.
All of these have been accepted as standards that simply go along with the iPhone technology, and those who want the touch screen pay the price. Now in the UK, France, and Canada there seems to be a shift in paradigm. Or is it just a mirage?
Apple will make available unlocked iPhone's in the British, French, and Canadian markets for which other phone services can be applied. What happens here is that you purchase the iPhone at its "full" price, which is meant to be assumed because it does not have an attached carrier to subsidize the iPhone in the way that AT&T automatically does when you sign a two year contract. This regular price is actually jacked up considerably in every country where the price has been announced. In England the 32 GB iPhone 4 will costs 599 United Kingdom Pounds, which at this writing is rounding out at about $887 dollars stateside. In France this is going to cost a converted $907. This is far above what an unsubsidized iPhone costs here in the U.S., or is it?
What you end up with is the option to get a cheaper cell phone plan by going with an outside carrier, but if you add up what you end up saving in cell phone charges over a two year period and compare it to how much more you pay the savings may even be a relative loss. In this light it appears as though this gesture toward the release of unlocked iPhone may just be a PR move and is not going really shift their business plan away from AT&T in the long run. The knowledge of an unlocked iPhone looks better in the public sphere, but when reality sinks in for a person about to purchase one they are easily swayed into signing with AT&T.
There is no doubt that iPhone 4 is going to be an important release for Apple, especially when it is now being paired up against contenders like the new Blackberry models, the bizarre social networking Kin, and the self labeld "Super Phone" Nexus One. Apple needs a kicker and the promise of an "open" technology may just be that, even though they are going to get their either way.
What this does ring very well for are those involved in consistent international travel. Anyone that has jumped across national borders will tell you that your "i" service is not cheap, but with these "SIM free" iPhone's you can simply buy one where you are and plug it in. After a while you can easily just match up to the country's SIM card that you're headed to. This is not going to be that attractive to most iPhone users, unless they decide that country hopping around Europe is their summer plan.
The current calculations have already shown that these other iPhone plans through AT&T's competitors will actually cost slightly more in most final situations, but you still do have an open avenue for other companies to begin competing to service Apple. This may be a good thing since it has been a long time since Apple serviced us.