Cellphone carriers better prepare to understand the meaning of “tyranny of free.” Today at Apple’s fall product launch, Steve Jobs announced that iPhone and iPod Touch products can now make calls to other Apple mobile devices without the need for a cellphone contract.

It could take awhile for Apple and Google’s similarly free voice calling features to go mainstream. But both products point to an ever present threat in the digital world, where free can be a nasty four letter word. 

Today in San Francisco, Steve Jobs announced some updates to Apple’s iPod Touch:

“The iPod touch has been a remarkable product for
us. It has become the most popular product for us — it used to be the
nano. A lot of people call it the iPhone without a phone. But it’s also
an iPhone without the contract!”

That’s because iPhones and iPod touches can now video chat one another through FaceTime. Apple is selling three iPod Touch models: 8GB for
$229, 32GB for $299, and 64GB for $399.”

Considering that the iPod has all of the features of an iPhone without the steeper price tag, it could catch on as a communication device.

Apple also isn’t the only one working on digital calling alternatives. Skype’s internet calling options are far cheaper than terrestrial phone lines. Meanwhile, Google just undercut Skype with the launch of Voice Calls from Gmail, a service that allows Gmail users to call landlines for free.

Right now, those aren’t major options for mobile calling, but it’s not hard to imagine mobile implementations of those services taking off.

The major benefit that telecoms have right now stems from the enormous data load that most smartphones require. For occasional calling, iPod Touch users can plug in to a home wifi network. But for frequent usage, consumers still need phone companies to communicate through voice and audio calls.

However, phone companies are going to have to do a lot better if they don’t want some tech company to sweep in and eat their lunch over the next few years.

Many of the telcos are lacking when it comes to customer service, and with consumers, a little more effort could go a long way. Also, telcos can provide a level of consistency in calling that new video and audio tech features can’t maintain right now. 

It will be especially interesting to see if monthly charges from the telcos drop over the next few months. It’s
expensive to provide the data capabilities many mobile users eat
up on a daily basis. But when the competition offers a similar (if less reliable) service for free, it’s time to start reassessing your cost structure.

Images: gdgt, Apple