Let me start by saying that I think the user experience provided by whole Apple ecosystem is second to none: from their Mac OS X computers to the iPhone, and how everything works together. Quoting Sir Winston Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – this is my personal experience with Apple, not perfect by far, but better than anything else I’ve ever tried.
For the iPhone, Apple chose a business model of selecting carriers to associate with, and sell the iPhone as a whole experience instead of merely a device, including data plans and their special visual voice mail. Only with carriers that accepted their conditions, from subsidization of the equipments to profit sharing contracts. Not all carriers accepted this and some of us only had the choice of either not having an iPhone or changing carriers.
This happened until Apple, by the laws of some countries, became legally bound to supply operator-free versions of the iPhone. They complied with the laws, and the iPhone is sold unlocked in several countries, including Italy, from where my own iPhone was imported from.
Everything worked great, including the tethering option (connecting your computer to the internet using the iPhone) since the upgrade to iPhone OS 3.0, to the point that I decided to cancel my separate data-only contract that I used with a 3G USB modem to connect my laptop to the internet, and asked my carrier to upgrade the data plan on my voice card from 1GB to 3GB a month. It was a win-win situation for me, as I would pay less, and carry only the iPhone for everything.
Well, it worked well until last week, when the iPhone OS 3.1 upgrade showed up. As a legal user of the iPhone, and never having it jailbroken, I never really bothered to check if such upgrades would break something. My belief was that Apple would only add new features and make things work better, as they have been doing since I bought my iPhone almost one year ago. With the 3.1 upgrade, tethering stopped working. It just disappeared from the options.
After looking around for the reason, I found this page. Apple changed the way the iPhone accepts the tethering configuration, and now requires the APN in the carrier bundles to be signed, meaning that tethering will only work with the Apple associated carriers who allow tethering explicitly.
I have nothing against certain carriers forbidding tethering, it’s their own policy. But this change by Apple has meant that I have a legal operator-free iPhone (for which I paid much more than a subsidized and contract-locked iPhone) with a voice+data contract with my own carrier that allows tethering, and yet, I can’t.
I decided to wait, and seek clarification on Apple’s own support forums, on this thread. What pushed me over the edge to write this post was that they deleted my last message, citing that
“Your post was removed from Apple Discussions as it contained feedback or feature requests. These areas are intended to address technical issues about Apple products. Although your feedback is appreciated, unfortunately these forums are not designed for it and your thoughts/concerns will not get the attention they deserve.“
which is laughable, considering what is already posted there and the message that was deleted:
In the end, the real reason Apple sold operator-free iPhones is because they were made to by the legislation of certain countries. And because the AT&T data network is bursting at the seams (and they still want to push the marketing mantra of “unlimited” data plans), they forced Apple’s hand into cutting the problem by the source – just kill tethering in general. Apple’s solution, to allow tethering at all with their partner carriers who allow it, was to cryptographically sign the APN strings in the carrier bundles. Which left everyone with legally unlocked phones out in the rain if they don’t work with partner carriers (like myself).
I can understand why they did it. It just means they’re not worried about losing the fringe share of unlocked customers, who represent a tiny percentage of their sales.
If Apple doesn’t solve this (and I repeat, I think the percentage of users affected is not enough to force them to re-think their strategy), our only recourse is legal. They advertised an important feature, it worked perfectly with unlocked phones for a while, and then they removed it.
I think this whole incident is just bad marketing, and bad PR. Bad marketing, because they’re pushing an important feature such as tethering to sell the iPhone (saying “check your carrier for availability” – mine supports it), and then removing it, even if it only affects a certain part of their customers; and it’s bad PR because instead of saying to the owners of legal operator-free iPhones “please wait for a solution, it is coming”, they’re just passing out the message that they just don’t care. I know they didn’t want to have the obligation to sell unlocked iPhones (as it goes against their business strategy), but it’s not nice to be on the receiving end of this treatment.
And no, I’m not going to boycott Apple’s products, I’d be the one to lose, and neither am I going to seek legal recourse. If the situation is not solved soon, I’ll just revert to my previous solution of having a separate data plan. This is more of a warning to prospective buyers – you either buy the iPhone from a supported carrier or you might face surprises such as this one in the future, even if you do everything “by the book” and buy a legal operator-free iPhone.