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Research in Motion, the Canadian manufacturer of the iconic BlackBerry mobile e-mail device beloved by politicians, business leaders and celebrities, will launch its first multimedia BlackBerry - dubbed the BlackBerry Pearl - on Thursday.

The new BlackBerry device is a key plank in RIM’s strategy to expand its customer base, combat growing competition from rival phone makers such as Nokia, Motorola and Palm and retain its dominant position in the growing market for multifunction wireless "communicators".

The BlackBerry 8100 or Blackberry Pearl – named after the distinctive pearl-coloured navigation "ball" used to move between menu items and through e-mails or lists – is the most radical design change since RIM launched the first BlackBerry devices in the late 1990s.

The Waterloo, Ontario-based company spent three years developing the device. Gone are the familiar scroll wheel and chunky design – in their place comes a sleek and slim device with built-in camera and MP3 playback capabilities that looks and functions much more like a high-end mobile phone.

RIM, which has sold more than 5.5m BlackBerries so far and pioneered the market for wireless e-mail devices with mini-keyboards, is betting that its new "baby" will expand the market for its handsets and help answer critics that have long complained that many BlackBerry users actually carry a separate mobile phone for voice calls.

“Business customers are also consumers and we believe the BlackBerry Pearl will provide them with a single device that satisfies all their requirements,” said Mike Lazaridis, RIM’s co-chairman and chief BlackBerry evangelist.

RIM also believes there is a huge untapped market of potential BlackBerry users who have been put off by the complexity and relatively austere design of previous Blackberries.

Despite the new design, Mr Lazaridis emphasises the Pearl is still a BlackBerry device designed to work with corporate IT systems and provide a high level of security.

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