I believe that wireless networks and phone makers became fused decades ago because the very idea of mobile telephony was a costly novelty. Unless there were networks, there'd be no market for mobile phones. Unless there were mobile phones, there'd be no market for networks.
It wasn't unprecedented. After all, in their own early days, some TV networks and TV makers were commonly owned and Hollywood studios owned theater chains. These arrangements were eventually broken up by the government.
The benefits would be huge. Competition in both spheres — handsets and networks — would be enhanced, once each stood alone and true prices and features became clearer. Updates for Android users would be much faster. And new entrants in handsets would come flooding into the U.S.
It's an interesting idea. The idea of software updates being guaranteed (especially for Android where critical security updates are not being released as they are dependant on the input of Google, the handset makers and operators. Apple and the iPhone have proved the willingness of handset owners to upgrade when given direct access to them, most recently with 12% of iOS devices upgraded to the latest version of Apple's iOS within 24 hours. Personally, my next phone is being purchased directly from the handset maker so I'm making that approach going forward. I wonder if this will be the new norm....... Interestingly, I noticed that the new iPhone will work out around €1 a day over two years of life, that's a very fair trade in price consider how much I use it for everything from communication to music to podcasts to general internet access. It will also make me think about what I spend on monthly data plans also.....
Additional insights from Ben Evans:
Finally, this is another case of Apple moving into mobile operators' territory (which may be why it explicitly denied the recent rumor that it was planning to launch an MVNO - Apple almost never comments on rumors, but you only want to trench on one of your partners' prerogatives at a time). The immediate impact on mobile operators is actually pretty oblique - the rolling contract effect means that an iPhone user on Apple's plan won't be going into rival operators' stores looking for the best price for a new iPhone, so it has some of the same churn reduction benefits as if they'd taken the operators own installment plan. But this does mean that one more contact point - one more piece of surface area - has been removed. And the phones are unlocked. In the USA this is less of an issue since for a variety of (diminishing) technical reasons it's still hard to move a phone for one network to another, but in the rest of the world, which decided to use common standards, it's very easy. Hence, you can move from operator to operator in search of price or coverage independently of your handset. That's not necessarily a comfortable development.
Finally, this sort of shift is a prerequisite for there to be any point to soft SIMs in smartphones. A soft SIM in a subsidized handset locked to an operator is pointless (except for the engineering benefits). But a soft SIM (presuming the MNOs support it) in a phone financed by Apple, with seamless number portability (or of course a voice and messaging app environment in which mobile numbers matter less and less) is a much more subversive thing. The operators would of course have to enable soft SIMs (it's their code), but there's now a long history of operators bending to the inevitable.