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Apple Now Selling Unlocked iPhone In The U.S.; Retail Strategy Head Leaves

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Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) still hasn’t released an iPhone 5 — or whatever the next iteration of the iPhone will be called — but it has, once again, come up with a neat variation on its existing product that could result in an uptick in sales: it is now, and for the first time, offering an “unlocked” version of the GSM-based iPhone 4 in the U.S. — that is, not tied to a contract with AT&T (NYSE: T). We first reported on the possibility of this happening yesterday, and now the company has made it official. The news comes on the same day that Apple has seen another change in its retail sphere: its longtime head of retail strategy, Ron Johnson, has reportedly left the company to become the CEO of JC Penney.

iPhone: Before today, consumers in the U.S. were only able to purchase the iPhone tied to a contract with either AT&T or Verizon. Now, if you go to the Apple Store online or in person, you can buy the four types of iPhones (16/32 Gigabyte, black/white) “SIM-free”, with prices starting from $649.

Note that these devices will not work on the Verizon or Sprint (NYSE: S) networks, which use CDMA and do not use SIM cards to link the phone to their networks — rather, that connection is integrated into the chipsets for the devices.

So what will you be able to do with these unlocked iPhones? You will be able to use them on the T-Mobile USA network, which is also based on the GSM standard — although you will not be able to use it on T-Mobile’s 3G network, which uses a different frequency from AT&T’s and does not at this point appear to be supported by the iPhone. You will also be able to technically take only pay-as-you-go services rather than tie yourself to two year contracts (although AT&T or other GSM carriers will have to come up with those tariffs, coupled with the microSIM used by the iPhone, first).

And as we pointed out yesterday — and Apple is trumpeting now — the devices will be very useful for those people who travel abroad and want to swap out their SIMs for a local, less expensive SIM.

Perhaps most importantly, starting to sell an unlocked iPhone now could lay the groundwork for whatever type of phone Apple plans next, which may even be able to be dual-mode and able to be used on all four major networks.

Ron Johnson: Meanwhile, another change afoot for Apple in retail, it seems. The WSJ is reporting that Apple’s SVP of retail, Ron Johnson, is leaving the company to become the CEO of JC Penney. He had joined Apple in 2000 and spearheaded an aggressive expansion of the company’s retail efforts, and reports directly to CEO Steve Jobs.