If you want an iPhone in the U.S., you've got two choices: use AT&T's wireless service, or risk unlocking your phone to use T-Mobile (the only other American provider that's compatible with the iPhone's SIM-based GSM design). And with AT&T's exclusivity contract in effect until 2012, we'll be well into the next presidential election cycle before that changes. But maybe there's a loophole in the form of the iPod Touch--and its eventual successor.
While it looks almost identical, the iPod Touch is missing a few key iPhone features. But let's envision a second-gen Touch that changes that--call it the iPod Max. The Max would use nearly the exact same housing as the iPhone, including the built-in speaker, microphone, Bluetooth, and camera missing from the Touch. (And since we're fantasizing here, I'll go ahead and make sure the Max uses a flush headphone jack, not that annoying recessed version found on the iPhone.) But here's the key: in addition to Wi-Fi, the iPod Max would have a WiMax module in place of the cellular radio found on the iPhone. And that's where things could get interesting.
WiMax is the fledgling 4G high-speed wireless service that's due to be rolled out by Sprint later this year. The details are still thin, but the WiMax service--sold under the "Xohm" brand--is said to be available on a much more flexible basis than cellular service. So instead of a dreaded two-year contract, you'll pay for service on a more a la carte basis--by the hour, by the day, or by the month, presumably on a flat fee all-you-can-eat data plan.
So Apple sells its iPod Max ($499 for 64GB, $399 for 32GB) as a standalone touch-screen iPod that can also double as a wireless data device. But unlike the current Wi-Fi-only iPod Touch, the user can also use the Max to connect to the Sprint/Xohm WiMax network, when and where it's available. That would provide access to any and all Internet-connected apps, even when outside the range of a Wi-Fi hotspot.
But why stop at e-mail, instant messaging, Web browsing, and Google Maps? Throw a Skype application on the iPod Max, and the possibilities really expand. If the free Skype-to-Skype calling isn't enough for you, just pay up for Skype's various upgrades--the ability to call landlines and cell phones anywhere in the world, a standard phone number so you can receive calls, voice mail, and even SMS text messaging. Granted, you'd be paying two bills--the WiMax service fee plus the Skype charges--but I'd be willing to bet that even that combined rate would be less than what some people are currently paying for a cell phone bill that includes a good data plan. Meanwhile, Apple gets to sell another "iPhone" that works outside of AT&T's network--but because Skype telephony is technically a "data" service, Apple's not violating the letter of its exclusivity contract with the wireless carrier.
Now, let's refresh a key point in case you're just skimming this: I'm making all of this up. There is no such thing as an iPod Max, there's no announced plans for an WiMax-enabled iPod, and there's not even a Skype application available on the iPhone/iPod Touch platform, and even if one were to appear, the apparent inability of third-party applications to run in the background (multitask) seems to be a huge stumbling block. And even if all of that were to be resolved, there are still a lot of variables, not the least of which is Sprint's WiMax network: it hasn't yet been launched, and until it is, its pricing, coverage, and reliability remains completely theoretical. (Though it looks as if we'll be getting details sooner rather than later.)
By the same token, however, none of this is completely outside the realm of possibility, either.
So what do you think? Would you like to see a Skype-friendly version of the iPod Touch? Or are you and your iPhone happily married to AT&T until 2012?