The CNET story provides an interesting insight into the unlocked cell phone market. As $20 range unlocked cell phones appear, people will be able to afford to carry multiple cell phones, yet would like to share data on all of his phones, including carrier's service, PIM etc. It would be a different kind of service from carriers where subscribers would pay $50 per month for service, yet would be able to use any phone to access the network out of 2 or 3 phones they own. Yes, I am aware of issues like which phone to ring when incoming call comes in, but I am it is as easy as ringing cell phone and wired phone at the same time, as carriers are starting to do today.
Even if the above scenario does not play out, subscribers would like to move their unlocked phones with them when they move from their current carrier to the new one. However, even though unlocked phones will make voice calls on the carrier's network, many features may not work as they work on the phones purchased from carrier directly, simply because the carrier's networks are built "a" little differently, even if they are GSM. For example, T-Mobile phones, when unlocked will not work properly on Cingular's network for all the services.
I also agree that the Voice over WiFi and Mesh Networks would make it harder for carriers to keep the current business model,
as subscriber's would be able (and like) to make most calls on these low cost networks, and bypass the carrier's network. And those networks would behave more like
wired Internet, where one can buy any device and connect to the network.
And that is where lies the opportunity.
A new kind of business can emerge where retail stores can offer service to configure cell phones for new carrier. Of course the new carrier would also like to offer this service, as a way to get the customer. The service would offer applying carrier specific patches, without losing subscriber's personal data. That can be achieved by first backing up all the user data, applying the patch and then restoring user data.
Unlocked phones also means carriers are not in control, and hence the real competition is between handset makers, thus driving the cost of handsets even further down and providing a large choice. The handset makers may jump into device management service business and thus own the subscriber. They can provide self service portals for subscribers to configure the device for the carrier they desire. They can also layer other device management services like backup and restore, device data migration when subscriber buys new device. One can also imagine device leasing companies, that provide all of the above services, with device insurance as well.
Since Asia and Europe are large markets for unlocked phones, where more than 70 percent of phones are sold outside of carrier, the market for such a service is large there. And we might see any one of these services succeed there first.