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Plan-Free iPhones Now Available…But Still Locked to AT&T

Apple has long been offering unlocked iPhones for sale in some international markets, enabling mobile customers to walk into a retailer and walk out with an iPhone in their hand that isn’t tied to a particular carrier or saddled with a multi-year service contract. Of course, those phones are considerably more expensive than their subsidized locked-and-contracted counterparts. Now, Apple is apparently selling contract-free versions of the iPhone in the United States…however, the iPhones are still locked to AT&T.

Apple is offering the 8 GB iPhone sans contract for $499, and the 16 GB and 32 GB versions of the iPhone 3GS for $599 and $699 respectively. Customers are limited to purchasing one contract-free iPhone per day, with a total purchase limit of 10 contract-free iPhones over a lifetime.

Apple-watchers are trying hard to see signs of the company’s mobile strategy in the move: is the idea to clear out inventory of existing iPhone 3G and 3GS models before new iPhone hardware debuts? Or to offer a full-price version of the iPhone that competes with the $529 unlocked version of the Google Nexus One? Neither theory seems to hold much water: with the full-price iPhones still locked to AT&T (thus requiring an AT&T sim to work), the phones aren’t really unlocked. It’s hard to imagine many customers paying that much money for an iPhone merely to use it with AT&T pay-as-you-go plans, or being lured away from the completely-unlocked $529 Nexus One just for the opportunity to work with AT&T.

In March of 2009, Apple briefly sold the iPhone 3G without a contact for $599 and $699, respectively; the move preceded the launch of the iPhone 3GS by a few months.

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