Apple’s iPad 2 a Step Backward for Carrier Choice?

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Apple unveiled the iPad 2 today, and while just about everything introduced was expected, I was surprised by at least one thing: Unlike its predecessor, the iPad 2 looks to be locked to a single carrier, even in at least one country where carriers use the same mobile network technology.

If it was only the case in the U.S., that would be a different story. Verizon and AT&T are Apple’s official carrier partners in the U.S., and each uses a different network technology. Verizon’s devices use CDMA, while AT&T’s network uses GSM, which is much more popular globally. Even though many (including us) predicted the new iPad would have dual-network capabilities, it’s understandable that Apple finally opted not to go that route and kept U.S. iPads carrier-specific.

But in the Canadian market, the same logic doesn’t apply. Apple offered the first iPad it introduced unlocked in Canada, and free to use on whatever network a buyer chose just by switching out the micro SIM card. If you weren’t happy with service from one, you could easily switch to another. Not so with the iPad 2. According to Apple’s official website, you have to choose which carrier you plan on using your device with in advance when ordering the iPad 2, since “[t]he iPad model you purchase is specially configured to work with either Bell, Rogers, or Telus.” All three networks currently use the same GSM standard for their networks, and I can use my current iPad and iPhone 4 on each without having to resort to unlocking.

This looks to be specific to the Canadian market. In the U.K., where there are also many GSM carrier choices available, Apple makes no such stipulations about having to stick with a chosen carrier. But it should be cause for concern for Apple customers outside Canada, too, since it seems to indicate Apple is more eager to please carrier partners than it has been in the past, and it represents a significant reverse in Apple’s ongoing shift away from carrier lock-in.

Stacey broke the news that Apple might be working on building in a remotely-programmable hardware SIM that would give consumers even more choice when it comes to carriers, but the Canada lock-down seems like a step in the opposite direction. Not only does Apple not appear to be using dual-mode mobile broadband chips in its new iPad, but it’s also going back to the days of artificial carrier software locks, at least in some markets.

At least there aren’t any contract requirements attached to iPad 2 data plans, but it’s still not encouraging to see Apple make any kind of carrier concessions.

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