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Apple selling unlocked iPhones ¿ in Hong Kong

The Holy Grail of iPhone lovers – an official, Apple-sanctioned unlocked iPhone 3G – is now available in Hong Kong.

"Unlocked" means the iPhone can be used with the carrier of the buyer's choice, an option Apple has resisted almost everywhere else it sells the iPhone. A few countries have the option of choosing between two Apple-sanctioned carriers but in most --including the United States -- customers have no choice.

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Those who illegally unlocked the first version of the iPhone felt Apple's wrath when a software update "bricked" the devices.

As a long-time advocate of an Apple-approved unlocked iPhone option, I'm pleased to see one appear, even if it is in faraway Hong Kong.

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However, unlocked iPhones are not cheap. In Hong Kong an unlocked 8GB iPhone costs HK$5,400 ($695 U.S. dollars) while the 16 GB version costs HK$6,200 ($798 U.S.). Compare that to the AT&T subsidized prices in the United States: $199 for the 8 GB model and $299 for the 16 GB.

The prices are similar to those in Italy, where pre-paid iPhones – which also come unlocked -- cost €499 (8GB) and €569 (16GB), or $728 and $830 at current exchange rates.

Apple is promoting the deal, including free shipping, on the Hong Kong version of its online Apple Store: "iPhone 3G purchased at the Apple Online Store can be activated with any wireless carrier. Simply insert the SIM from your current phone into iPhone 3G and connect to iTunes 8 to complete activation."

The iPhone has been available since July from Hong Kong carrier Hutchison Telecommunications, but with a two-year contract.

Unlocked iPhones, however, could easily be bought on the black market in Hong Kong. That's probably what inspired Apple to sell an official version there.

Does this mean Apple might consider selling unlocked iPhones in the United States? Hard to say.

Back in July, AT&T issued a press release that stated, "In the future, AT&T will offer a no-contract-required option for $599 (8GB) or $699 (16GB)."

We're still waiting.

One can assume it is Apple, not AT&T, blocking the sale of contract-free iPhones in the United States. If and when it changes its mind is impossible to predict, but the shift in Hong Kong shows Apple might consider it, particularly if changes in the market forces its hand.

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