An unlocked variant of the iPhone 4S is due in November. Yet it turns out some lucky individuals didn't even have to wait that long, having managed to score an unshackled device in the days since launch by purchasing it outright from Apple retail. Indeed, a number of reports point to AT&T models being free of any carrier locks when bought off-contract.
A discussion over at MacRumors describes the process, which begins with a customer requesting the 4S at an unsubsidized rate—$649, $749, and $849 depending on storage, in case you need refreshing. The transaction is completed without any disclosure of account credentials, and upon syncing with iTunes for the first time, users receive a message confirming a successful unlocking of their handset. The odds of this being some sort of fluke or bug are minimal since the message is repeated if the phone is restored to factory settings at any point.
Before you go running out to the local Apple shop, take heed: it seems some people have not been permitted to buy an iPhone 4S without committing to a new two-year service agreement — they simply aren't being offered the option of no-commitment pricing. Still others are hearing from Apple Store employees that the device will be locked to AT&T regardless of how it's purchased. Positive outcomes have been reported at Apple retail locations on both coasts, including San Francisco and the West 14th Street store in New York City, but your mileage may vary.
So what's going on here, exactly? Our guess is that these devices are unlocked when they initially arrive in stores, only to lose that freedom when programmed to a specific carrier at the time of purchase. Whether these individual stores are erroneously selling unlocked models before the intended release is difficult to say. Apple has made no comment about the situation and we wouldn't expect much in the way of clarification before November.
If the allure of using Cupertino's latest gadget on virtually any GSM network worldwide is worth a potentially frustrating hunt, let us know how you make out in the comments.