Decisions, Decisions

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2009-08-19

To Unlock or Not to Unlock Smartphones? That Is the Question for Enterprise IT Managers

Many companies do just fine with the standard, off-the-shelf smartphones that can be picked up from any carrier, but many need something different. For this reason, unprovisioned-or unlocked-devices are gaining interest, if not widespread availability, at this time.

One thing you should know is that unprovisioned smartphones are only a subset of unlocked phones. It is possible to buy an unlocked phone that is provisioned for a specific carrier but that can have its provisioning changed to some other carrier. Other unlocked smartphones are completely unprovisioned.

Provisioning a phone really means telling the phone what network it should be running on for data access. When you put a SIM card into a GSM smartphone, that provisions the phone for a specific voice carrier. However, you also need to tell the phone the addresses of the network routers it should use, how and where it should get its IP address, and the like. You may also need to tell the device what to do if it finds multiple voice networks and multiple data networks available.

Provisioning is normally done through a series of menu choices in the phone's system settings. However, with some phones, it's possible to create a script that will perform the task for you. In many cases, the carriers will provide the scripts for the most commonly used smartphones. T-Mobile, for example, keeps a library of smartphone provisioning scripts on its Website.

The availability of unlocked phones is likely to increase along with greater scrutiny into deals between carriers and device makers that lock customers into exclusive contracts.

A primary example of a deal being examined by the Federal Communications Commission is the one in which Apple's iPhone is available in the United States only from AT&T. This forces U.S. users who want to go with another carrier to either unlock the AT&T phone (and risk having it relocked by Apple when the phone is connected to iTunes) or to import an iPhone from Germany to get a T-Mobile version.

Congress also has its eye on these kinds of deals and, at the very least, could make such exclusive deals easier to bypass. This may mean that carriers may soon be willing to provide unlocked versions of devices that currently are not available in that form.

There are currently several smartphones that are available as unlocked devices.

The Palm Pro, for example, is available only as an unlocked device. Its 3G features work only with AT&T in the United States, although it can be provisioned to work with most 3G carriers elsewhere. Likewise HP's Windows Mobile 6.1-based iPaq 910c is available only as an unprovisioned, unlocked smartphone. You'll have to get a SIM card from your carrier and then set up the phone manually. In addition, Nokia makes several of its smartphones available as unlocked devices.

You can also buy devices in an unlocked form even if their manufacturers don't provide them that way in the United States, but there may be risk. For example, you can buy unlocked BlackBerrys even though Research In Motion doesn't sell them that way, but generally these phones are sold by third parties without a warranty.

Decisions, Decisions


So, how do you decide whether unprovisioned smartphones make sense for your company?

If you're at a large enterprise with a support staff based mostly in the United States, you'll probably save money getting your devices from a carrier. They'll give you a much better deal than you see in the ads, and they'll do a lot to support you, as well.

However, if you're a smaller company, especially if your employees travel a lot, you may find yourself better off getting an unlocked phone and provisioning it to meet the needs of the employee who is getting it.

Some of the advantages of unprovisioned smartphones include:

- You can match the choice of carrier with the location of the employee.

- Employees can get local phone numbers when they travel internationally, which can save money-in some cases, a lot of money.

- You support only one phone and one operating system, regardless of where your employees are based.

- It's easier to implement consistent compliance, backup and security features when you provision the phone yourself.

But there are also reasons you might not want to choose an unlocked, unprovisioned phone, including:

- Your carrier of choice makes a financial arrangement that will offset the costs of using other phones outside the United States.

- Your carrier has the global presence you need, making it less of an advantage to use unlocked phones.

- Your carrier will agree to unlock your smartphones so you can get a foreign phone number.

- You have a specific type of phone that you need to support (such as a BlackBerry) that's not available from primary sources in an unlocked version, and you don't want to tackle the support costs of a device with no warranty and perhaps no support for your carrier's features.

Of course, you can have it both ways. You can buy an unprovisioned smartphone for those employees who need one and buy devices from a carrier that are as similar as possible.

You could, for example, select an HP iPaq 910c with a touch-screen and a QWERTY keyboard for your field service force and your non-U.S. staff and a different Windows Mobile-based device for everyone else. Either way, you're supporting Windows Mobile; the only thing that differs is the hardware.

For many IT departments, buying an unlocked, unprovisioned smartphone may not make sense. But for some companies, not only does it make a great deal of sense, but it may be the only acceptable solution.

Contributing Analyst Wayne Rash can be reached at

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