Apple is returning to letting customers buy the iPhone without a contract, a leaked memo may have confirmed today. Those willing to buy an iPhone 3G or 3GS at full price will purportedly have the freedom to do so at a US store without having a new or existing AT&T plan. The sales would discourage bootleggers only by keeping the phones locked to AT&T and one phone per day.
While the memo obtained by Gizmodo hasn't been publicly confirmed by Apple, customers have heard the same from Apple store staff and suggest the strategy is in full effect. Pricing would start at $499 for the 8GB iPhone 3G and climb to $599 and $699 for the 16GB and 32GB iPhone 3GS models.
Why Apple would relent at this stage isn't known but may be influenced at least partly by Google's attitude to the Nexus One. While AT&T's deal with Apple could prevent a truly unlocked iPhone at this stage, the terms essentially mirror that for the Android smartphone, where buyers are encouraged to pay full price in return for control over when they end service. Apple has often resisted any implied support for hacking and unlocking iPhones but may be reaching out to an audience that would normally avoid Apple due to AT&T's requirements.
The news has come just as Google has begun selling AT&T-ready Nexus Ones and is on the verge of offering both Sprint and Verizon editions, leading to further speculation that Apple wants to provide equal pricing where possible.
Bootlegging was a concern mostly with the first generation of the iPhone, when US- and Europe-only sales led gray market importers from China and elsewhere to buy the phones in large quantities and resell them overseas. China, Russia and other popular destinations for these phones now have their own official agreements and sometimes sell completely unlocked versions.