Why you shouldn’t buy an iPhone 4…

…unless it’s from Apple!

I admit, I’ve got no patience; it’s why I write about technology. I’m invariably bored with it after a few weeks and itching for the new thing to arrive. Having said that, I’m also really quite tired of the cycle of phone upgrades – so when my 3GS got broken, I hoped that the new iPhone 4 would do everything I needed. This premium-priced gadget is stacked high in shops everywhere, so why was buying it so hard…

The Consumers, The Crooks and the Myth

Let’s get one thing straight about the iPhone 4. Unlike the original iPhone, which was only available through one carrier in the UK, was locked and was on very expensive contracts, the iPhone 4 is available direct from Apple. Go into an Apple store and you can hand over £499 or £599 of your money and have a SIM-free, contract-free iPhone 4. It’s as easy as buying any other bit of technology, or should be. Apple don’t give stock levels online, Apple stores don’t give out incoming stock dates, and Apple stores are only really in major cities – so travelling in just to buy one can be an expensive wasted journey. That said, if you can stand 11 minutes of James Brown screaming down your ear you MIGHT get an Apple genius to answer the phone and let you know if they have stock. Frankly, if you have the time to wait (3 weeks at the time of writing, 2 weeks according to most forums) order one online and be done with it.

That first bit though, the bit about locking, gave rise to The Myth. The Myth that an unlocked iPhone is a thing of beauty and of value. Complicit in this myth is UK distributor eXpansys, who currently charge an eye-watering £944 for a 32GB iPhone 4. Yes, the exact same item you can buy in an Apple store for £599. I can almost understand it though, as when the iPhone 3 came out, they had a similar charging structure for SIM-free models and were essentially one of the few easy sources for such a thing (short of jailbreaking and unlocking, which is so easy anyone who understands what the process does should be able to accomplish it).

Update: eXpansys has lowered their prices. They now want £599 for 16GB or £699 for 32GB. If you’re prepared to pay these prices, I have a hotel in London that I’d like to sell you, along with a bridge in San Francisco. These prices are, hilariously, being described as a £99 saving as they’re also including some free cases.

The Myth has fed a whole load of unscrupulous resellers on eBay, and made buying a secondhand iPhone absoutely infuriating. Again, you can expect to be charged £700+ for a device that costs £500 and won’t be new, may have been unlocked using Jailbreaking techniques and at best, has simply been bought at the store you were going into anyway purely to make a profit. It’s like the Wii all over again. JUST WAIT. Eventually these people will run out of things to try and resell and will go back to running private clamping firms or finding other ways of making money from people’s impatience/stupidity.

What feeds the Myth are The Consumers. They don’t wait, and they don’t think “Oh, this device is not out of print. limited production or discontinued so Apple are, in fact, making more of them and all I need to do is wait”. They actually pay the £750 to someone who just paid £500 and walked out of a shop with it. If the first person to list a Wii for £500, or an iPhone for £1000, had had no takers there wouldn’t be an army of copycat eBay sellers trying to replicate their absolute greed and questionable morals remarkable success; and as such the iPhones in the shop would be bought by people wanting an iPhone rather than a profit.

Once the Myth is established, and the Consumers are used to the idea that an iPhone should, in fact, cost more than the RRP, we get the crooks. The crooks are the worst.

The crooks are not, as you might have expected, the people selling dodgy Chinese iPhone-clones or marking up easily available consumer goods. The crooks are the network operators. Right now, top of my list is Vodafone, my very own operator since 1997. They’re charging more for less, and on the whole they’re doing it consistently, across the board, under the guise of legitimate business practices.

My contract was renewed with the launch of the new iPhone 3GS on the aforementioned network. I fully understand that this phone came with contractual limitations; I paid the grand total of £75 for a 32GB iPhone 3GS with a retail value of nearly £700 (depending on reseller, naturally; at the time Apple didn’t offer SIM-free 3GS models in the UK). Whilst other networks are more reasonable about their locks Vodafone’s customer service came back with this nonsense – “Just to let you know that iPhone 3 and iPhone 4 is exclusively for Vodafone and hence can’t be unlock.”

Aside from the absolute inaccuracy of that statement – unless “exclusively” means “available with slightly fewer partners than yo mamma” – there’s even a page regarding unlocking the iPhone on Vodafone UK’s website which says nothing about exclusivity.

Now fair enough, my 3GS is still in contract. However – I dropped it. And I wanted a new phone. After repeated attempts to call the Apple Store in Birmingham, I gave up and decided that one or other of my networks (T-Mobile and Vodafone) would be able to provide me with an iPhone 4, surely for a reasonable cost. They practically give away things like the Samsung Galaxy S, after all. But The Myth has come to play.

T-Mobile would sell me a 16GB iPhone 4 for £500. Okay, that sounds fair – even if it is £1 over. But wait… I also have to pay £20 for a PayG SIM? I don’t want a PayG SIM. I can buy a SIM-free iPhone for £499 direct from Apple and I don’t have T-Mobile’s purchasing power! Surely if you’re not going to subsidise my phone yet are going to lock it, I should at least be able to just buy the phone. So we’re up to £520. No, wait. I need a MicroSIM for my contract. The contract which I can choose to knock back to £10/month and cease using if I don’t have a handset to use with it… yep. That’ll be a tenner.

The Myth allows T-Mobile to charge £530 for something which is less functional than a £499 device from the manufacturer, whilst committing you to using their network. Madness.

So I try Vodafone. They will do a box-only handset at £590 (their website gives PayG handset prices as £480 and £570 for 16 and 32GB respectively; a small saving). Seems fair. They won’t unlock it, though. In fact, they won’t unlock it ever according to Apple’s website or their own customer service people, despite it costing a mere £9 less than the Apple store and as with my point about T-Mobile, encouraging me to continue using their service rather than buggering off and using something else.

If I didn’t have a thorough dislike of O2, formed back when they were BT Cellnet and my contract was (stupidly) bought through Carphone Warehouse, changing my billing relationship and contractual setup (nice of them to draw my attention to that), what I should have done is gone into the O2 store, and handed over £595 for a 32GB… hold on. That’s a locked handset again, isn’t it… well… yes. And despite their generous terms (£15 unlock) for the iPhone 3GS, they’re claiming the iPhone 4 “cannot be unlocked”.

Having bought the iPhone 4, I thought “surely it would be reasonable to unlock my 3GS at least”. I just gave them a load of money for a replacement phone on my contract, so having a phone tied to that commitment would logically free off the older, upgraded phone. Nope. Not even a chance. Won’t be unlocked until 2012.

O2 will unlock an iPhone 3GS free, after a short period, on the sheer common sense understanding that you’re legally bound to the contract regardless of what damn phone you use or how you use it. In no way does unlocking the iPhone get you out of your 2 years handing over £40/month, neither does using another SIM in it harm O2 in any way, shape or form. They’ll even offer reasonable unlocking terms on their PayG handsets – again for the 3GS, not the 4.

Three will unlock; their site doesn’t seem to give iPhone specific details but unlocking for a fee appears to have no term.

Tesco unlock appears to be tied to 12 month terms, but as Tesco are O2 there may be other details elsewhere on this. They do give unlock details for the iPhone 4 though, unlike some others.

Orange will unlock for a fee (£20); it seems to be that they have a minimum three-month term and your account must be in order.

T-Mobile will unlock for a fee (£15) typically – their iPhone help details don’t give information either way.

Vodafone are the only UK operator who do not have a policy for unlocking iPhones other than “we won’t”.

Of course, it would be easier to take them seriously if they had a consistent policy – which this link seems to suggest they don’t.

Naturally you’d wonder why this is important – and of course for me, I just want to pick and choose between my contracts to see which performs best. As a new user though, you really are much better off going with almost any network other than Vodafone for the iPhone 4 (when they got the 3GS it was a different matter – their contracts with the 32GB model were amongst the best value); if you’re an existing Vodafone customer then it seems taking any other handset, selling it and buying an iPhone from the Apple store will be cheaper and give you a more flexible device than you would have been provided with by Vodafone. Vodafone in Australia (as with the other networks) will happily unlock, and I really don’t believe that their legal team is so incapable of negotiating a contract that they somehow got a worse deal than, say, Three.

Update: It seems that the confusion partly lies in that Vodafone stores can do what they wish with their stock, such as selling a “Box Only” iPhone 4 – whilst Vodafone the company simply don’t have the information framework to handle this and don’t offer a Box Only iPhone 4 themselves. Vodafone will, apparently, unlock a Box Only iPhone on submission of the receipt according to my last emails with the unlocking team, though this is a situation they don’t expect to encounter. As my later post on this suggests, the phone will – eventually – be unlocked though you can expect to bounce emails back and forth between the unlocking team until you get a straight answer.

Whilst there is a degree of market demand, if the operators were to sell unlocked phones the supply would be spread out and available across more outlets – it’s not that there are insufficient phones, it’s that in the back of the Vodafone store there are several hundred locked to Vodafone that aren’t in an Apple store. As a consumer you’re losing out on a subsidy for a locked handset; £10 or £5 is hardly comparable to, say, the £70 the Sony Xperia X10 Mini is subsidised by (£180 on PayG, free on contract, £250 SIM-free). So don’t do what I did, don’t be impatient. Buy your iPhone 4 from Apple.

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