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Chinese cell phone makers Alcatel and Haier to debut on US market

Two Chinese cell phone makers are looking to crack the U.S. market, both stressing fashion to make their statement but pursuing divergent strategies to make their mark.

Alcatel Mobile Phone and Haier Group, well-established wireless brands abroad, showed off their wares here for the first time at this week's cellular industry gathering, CTIA Wireless 2007.

Haier, better known to U.S. consumers for home appliances like air conditioners, is introducing two distinctively designed handsets through an unusual sales channel for the United States.

The two handsets, named Elegance and Sterling, are compatible with the cellular networks operated by AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile USA but won't be sold by any service providers. Instead, they will be sold "unlocked" through retailers, meaning that customers of those companies will be able to remove the small "SIM" cards from the battery compartments of their current phones and then slip them into the Haier handsets.

Unlocked phones are common in Europe and other markets - and they cost more up front to buy as a result. By contrast, U.S. cell carriers typically offer substantial discounts off the list price of a new phone, but then require subscribers to commit to one or two years of service.

The Elegance handset, 1.25 inches (3.2 centimeters) wide and 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters) long with rounded edges, went on sale through certain retailers last week, priced at about $250. The Sterling, priced at about $280, is slated to arrive in June.

"The carriers have been so committed to the leading brands" that it's hard to get their attention, said Haier's Charles Green. So the company is taking the unlocked approach "to get the Haier name out there and get some panache and cache into the brand."

Alcatel Mobile Phone, which licenses the Alcatel brand from Alcatel Lucent SA of France, is taking the more traditional approach for its U.S. launch, working with wireless service providers to bring its handsets to consumers.

The company, a unit of TCL Communication Technology Holdings Ltd. of China, hopes to export many of its fashion-focused phones already available in other markets.

But it is also launching a new model for the new market: The not-so-fashionably-named OT-C820A is a slider handset geared toward music and video, featuring dedicated playback buttons and an external slot for extra memory. No pricing or target date for availability was announced.

Also gunning for fashion points at this week's show was Kyocera, which unveiled a slim flip phone with a novel S-shaped steel hinge connecting the screen half and the keypad half. The E5000 is expected to reach the market in August or September.

The company didn't disclose pricing or which carrier might offer the device. The underlying technology is compatible with the networks operated by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp., as well as smaller carriers such as Virgin Mobile USA.

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