What's the point of an unlocked Nexus S?

Samsung's Nexus S will be available as an unlocked smartphone in the U.S. but only supports T-Mobile's 3G service, begging the question: is it worth the extra money?

There's an old joke that you've probably heard a million times: when is a door not a door? When it's a jar. I'm reminded of that joke thinking about Google's Samsung Nexus S: when is an unlocked phone, not unlocked? When it only works on one U.S. carrier.

Google made a big point of illustrating its commitment to openness in Android by selling the Nexus S as an unlocked GSM phone – available exclusive at Best Buy for $529 (as opposed to the $199 subsidized price with a T-Mobile contract). I was actually very excited about the idea of buying an unlocked Nexus S until I read that it will only support 3G service in the U.S. on T-Mobile.

If I can't choose a carrier and either a traditional contract or a pre-paid plan with an unlocked phone and still get full functionality, is there really a point to buying it as an unlocked phone?

To be clear the Nexus S will work with a SIM card from a carrier other than T-Mobile. It will be able to send and receive both calls and texts. It will even support data access – just not 3G data access. For a smartphone designed to integrate with Google's services (not to mention other apps and Internet functionality), not supporting 3G effectively makes the phone unusable for many tasks. It will also function with 3G on a selection of international carriers.

The same challenge affects and unlocked iPhone in the U.S. (whether it be one purchased here and jailbroken to be unlocked or one purchased in another country, say Canada or Mexico, where Apple offers the iPhone 4 unlocked). Only AT&t's frequency range is supported for 3G service on the iPhone here in the states.

There is one advantage that an unlocked smartphone has even if it is essentially carrier-specific in the U.S.: when traveling internationally since you can pick up a SIM card for a local carrier in whatever country you're visiting and avoid any voice or data roaming charges. Frequent travelers are actually be better buying an unlocked smartphone abroad since you'll probably have a much wider selection of devices.

Note: NetworkWorld's article Google Nexus S Smartphone: Nine Facts You Need to Know indicates that the Nexus may not even support 3G frequencies of overseas carriers.

I won't speculate whether Google and Samsung intentionally limited the Nexus S to T-Mobile for 3G service (or whether Apple did the same with the iPhone 4 and AT&T), though it seems rather probable. But it certainly seems like Google's talk of being open by offering an unlocked phone here in the states is little more than lip service.

Of course, the accepted perception of locked devices is more or less a U.S. mobile industry anomaly, as I've written about before in greater detail. While I don't really expect the situation to change overnight (I'm not all that optimistic of it ever changing), it would be nice to see major smartphone platform creators like Google, Apple, and Palm/HP put some pressure on the industry here to adopt more global practices – particularly if they're going to be talking openness and advertising a device as unlocked.

What's your take? Is there a real point to buying an unlocked Nexus S? Should the U.S. mobile industry be forced to move towards a more open model? If, so who should be responsible for making it happen? Let us know in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

Front page thumbnail courtesy Robert Scoble

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