Peter Cochrane's Blog: Mobile users break free

Unlocked devices on the rise, is it any surprise?

Written on the Ipswich to London train and dispatched via a free wi-fi service in London.

Suppose for a moment you bought a pen and found it would only write on a particular brand of paper. Or perhaps even more strangely, a car that only operated on one brand of fuel.

What kind of a world would that be and how soon would we change our purchasing habits, or get our toolkits out? This would be an alien world without customer freedom and so obviously doomed to fail.

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Strange then that over these past few weeks a number of industry pundits have expressed surprise at the rising tide of unlocked mobile devices appearing on networks.

In the case of the Apple iPhone it appears that many more than 1.3 million iPhones - and some estimate up to 30 per cent of all sales to date - are not being operated on the AT&T or O2 networks as originally intended. Where have they gone? Simple. To every other country and carrier you can name.

It appears that France and Finland are among a few countries where the tying of mobile devices to a specific network is illegal. Sadly, for the rest of us, the practice is not only condoned, it is actively encouraged.

But in the spirit of freedom, the software community freely publish fixes so that anyone with a modicum of capability can unlock a mobile to operate with any SIM on any network. How long does it take? Much less than an hour.

Like thousands of others, I have enjoyed the phone I want, operating on the network I choose, year after year, model after model, by virtue of this free software mechanism.

But there may be a bit of a showstopper on the horizon. Software workarounds are relatively easy to engineer but the device manufacturers and network operators are conspiring to insert hardware-defined constraints. These are considerably more difficult to overcome and generally require specialised knowledge, tools and skills.

So what happens next? Watch out for a slew of look-alike products out of Asia at a price point 50 per cent below that of the EU- and USA-derived originals.

Sound familiar? Didn't this, or something very similar, happen to the automotive, camera, hi-fi, radio, TV and recording industries of the West before? Didn't every instance of restrictive practices - coupled with attempts to constrain customers - in the past always end in tears?

I think the mobile device manufacturers and network operators had better get their handkerchiefs ready. There are going to be a whole lot of tears shed, and it won't be the customers crying.