North American Smartphone Paradigm

The model drives me crazy, as I imagine it does most of you; signing a 2-year (3 years in Canada) contract in order to get your hands on the latest device continues to confound me. Though I proudly consider myself a nerd, I am shamefully ill-informed on the models for smartphone adoption elsewhere in the world, specifically Europe, so I have a few questions:

  1. Am I to understand that it is far easier to obtain an unbranded/unlocked (straight-from-the-manufacturer) smartphone in Europe than in North America?
  2. If so, are the storefronts, of major mobile carriers (Orange and Vodafone for example), where people go to get these devices? Or are they available at most major electronics stores.
  3. Are the off contract prices similar to that which we see here? (even though, here, in many cases, when you buy a phone off contract from a carrier it will still have that carriers crap all over it)
All these questions to ask: WHY THE HELL IS IT SO HARD TO GET A DEVICE OVER HERE?! Is the paradigm so thoroughly ingrained that its just become permanently accepted? Am I the only one that is howling about this? Do the carriers have the manufacturers balls in a vice? Do the manufacturers like this model? Wouldn't they prefer to sell you their devices and just have the carriers be pipes?
What am I missing?