Every trade show season, there's a new company trying to make a big new push into the US market. In past years, it's been companies such as BenQ, Innostream, Telson, and Haier. This year it's Alcatel. The US market is a tough nut to crack, though. None of those companies had much luck here. The big US carriers have traditionally stuck to the big boys like Nokia and Motorola. A new carrier often had to start with smaller carriers and prove themselves there before working their way up the ladder.
Things are bit different these days, though. In a world where Nokia and Sony Ericsson seem to be stumbling a bit with the big carriers, some opportunities have opened up for new phone makers to court the first tier carriers. Pantech is a good example, having leaped into Cingular's lineup quickly and seemingly successfully (based on what they're showing off here.) Alcatel seems to be aiming to follow in Pantech's footsteps.
Alcatel used to be a French phone maker, but they had some trouble a few years ago, and decided to form a joint venture with TCL, a major Chinese phone manufacturer. The "new" Alcatel (think of it like Ericsson becoming Sony Ericsson, without the name change) is based in Hong Kong.
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When they started the joint venture, Alcatel and TCL decided to start more or less from scratch. Their first lineup of phones a couple of years ago consisted entirely of ultra-basic, ultra-cheap models. The following year they added cameras, and finally this year they are bringing out some basic music phones. It's all about baby steps.
They plan to continue adding more features and moving toward higher-end phones, but their overall strategy focuses on style and price.
Their very large lineup can be grouped in a few simple ways. First, there are three categories: basic, camera, and music phones. Within each of those, there are two form factors: clamshell, and either bar or slider. Then each of those models also has two style variants: one that's aggressively styled, and one with a more conservative design. Many models also have color and pattern variants.
There are far too many potential models to show them all here, but below are a few that caught our eye:
The C701 (above) is toward the high end of the lineup, featuring a camera, music player with external controls, microSD memory card slot, and stereo Bluetooth. (All of Alcatel's Bluetooth phones rock out in stereo.) It also has a gorgeous sculpted shape with a great soft-touch finish in a bright orange color. Most of the keys feel great, although the d-pad could use some tweaking. The OLED outer display is bright and nifty-looking, if a little small. One really nice touch is the oversize covers for the memory card slot and USB port. They're light years easier to manipulate than the tiny slivers of rubber on most phones.
The C707 (above) is almost the same exact phone, just with a different style on the front featuring one of several graphic designs.
The C285 represents the top of the current lineup, with all the features of the C701, plus a higher-res display (176 x 220) and a 1.3 megapixel camera. It's also a good example of how Alcatel does the slider thing:
The phone generally feels good. It has a faux-leather finish, if that's your thing. It does have one unfortunate usability flaw: the location of the music keys just below the display means you'll constantly find yourself hitting rewind or fast-forward when you mean to hit the left or right soft key.
The E801 and E805 are examples of bar-style phones from the company:
Both have microSD memory card slots for music, and the E805 is interesting in that it supports TrustedFlash.
Alcatel claims to have several phones in testing with Cingular now, with the first launching as early as May if all goes well. Of course not all models will be picked up by carriers like Cingular, or even ship in the US at all. The large lineup Alcatel is showing here at CTIA is just what they're pitching to carriers.
Interestingly, while some other new manufacturers have been willing to surrender their brand and let the carrier's logo be the only branding on the phone, Alcatel is insisting that its phones be Alcatel-branded from the start.
Alcatel also hopes to enter the US CDMA market in the future, although that's far easier said than done.
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