If you’ve traveled much, you’ve probably run across “unlocked” mobile phones and devices. If you own an Android or iPhone smart phone, you probably also heard about “jailbreaking”. It seems like lots of people are confused about these two things, so I decided to write down a quick post explaining them.
Carrier Locks and Unlocked Phones
Most mobile phones in the United States, and many in the rest of the world, are sold at a discount thanks to a subsidy from the mobile service carrier. Companies like AT&T and Verizon will spend hundreds of dollars to gain a new subscriber and lock them in for a few years of monthly service. They do this because the service is where their profit is, and service revenue usually adds up to 10 times the amount they spend on subsidies.
In exchange for the subsidy, the carrier requires the customer to sign a long-term contract for service. They also configure the phone only to connect to their network. This keeps the customer from signing up to get the subsidy and then breaking the contract to use the device on another network. But these carrier locks remain in place even after the contract is up, often rendering the phone less valuable, or even useless, on the secondhand market.
The situation is very different outside the United States, where consumers generally have a choice of buying subsidized and locked devices or spending more for unlocked devices. This is much more popular in markets with numerous competitive GSM carriers, since consumers can buy a device and expected to work on just about any network they choose. Most of my friends from Europe shop phones and service plans separately, and are happy to pay full price for an unlocked device.
Even the United States, it is possible to buy some devices unlocked, including the Apple iPhone and some Android devices, and there are unlock “hacks” for most phones. But the American GSM networks of AT&T and T-Mobile use different frequencies and are thus incompatible for most devices. Sprint and Verizon use totally different technology that doesn’t lend itself to unlocking. So Americans are generally stuck with their chosen carrier whether the device is locked or not.
Getting Root and Breaking out of Jail
So-called “dumb phones” (officially, “feature phones”) don’t run third-party software. You buy the phone, and whatever it does is what it does. Smart phones are different, though. As Apple learned, consumers want to run native applications on their smart phones, not just browse the web or read e-mail.
Smart phones are little computers, and running applications on them is a major risk. Viruses, Trojan horse applications, and plain poorly written software put the user at risk, and carriers might not want certain applications on their network. The device vendor also wants to keep battery sucking, crash prone junk off the phone to avoid being blamed for the issues caused.
This is why modern smartphone operating systems like Android and iOS put the user in a “sandbox” (derisively called “jail”). This allows native applications to run, but puts many functions off-limits. In the case of Apple iOS, the phone will only run official, signed programs from Apple’s App Store, whereas many Android devices will run applications from many different sources.
Since Apple places its users in “jail” and Android locks out “root” access, both devices can be considered “locked down” in a different way from the carrier lock. Many users feel the need to remove these restrictions, and this has led to the development of “jailbreaking” and “rooting” technology. Today, most iPhones and Android devices can be unrestricted if the user wishes.
Jailbreak, Root, Unlock, and Compete
It is important to understand that none of this is technically illegal in most countries, and that many unlocks do not require jailbreaking or root access. As mentioned above, Apple sells unlocked iPhones officially in most countries, and every iPad is sold without a carrier lock. These devices are incredibly popular with foreign tourists, since prices here in United States are usually much cheaper than in other countries.
I would also like to point out that unlocked phones do not place the user at greater risk of security issues. Although many Trojan horses have found their way onto Android phones, this has nothing to do with the carrier lock. And Apple’s iOS “jail” has proven remarkably sturdy against malware even though jailbroken and unlocked phones are commonplace.
Unlocking may become more popular in the United States in the coming years as T-Mobile realigns its “4G” HSPA+ frequencies to the same standards as AT&T. Next year at this time, users will have a real choice of high-speed GSM carriers, and they will be able to carry their unlocked phones abroad as well.
On the other hand, the crazy diversity of LTE frequencies used by Verizon, AT&T, Clearwire/Sprint, and international carriers does not bode well for unlocking. As is the case with Verizon and Sprint today, what good is an unlocked phone if it cannot be used on another carrier’s frequencies? Already, the AT&T and Verizon iPad models cannot roam on each other’s LTE networks, and neither works internationally.
I have, on occasion, jailbroken my iPhones, and I am the proud owner of a few unlocked devices as well. I found little interest in the former but a great deal of value in the latter. And I love the idea of a competitive carrier market as is the case with European GSM carriers and will soon be possible here, at least with AT&T and T-Mobile. It’s just too bad it took so long for this to happen!