UAE consumers will be among the first in the world to be offered the Nokia N97, the Finnish company's new top-of-the-line handset. Nokia hopes the N97 will become a direct competitor to the Apple iPhone, with the device including a large touch screen and deep integration with the internet. Since the launch of the iPhone in 2007, each of the world's major mobile manufacturers have announced or launched similar devices. The release of the N97 comes as mobile handset sales are falling at the fastest rate ever recorded. Sales of devices in the first quarter of this year were down 15.8 per cent from the same quarter last year, according to the research firm Strategy Analytics. The slowdown is being felt most strongly in the middle of the market, where consumers are delaying the purchase of new phones, and choosing instead to keep their older handsets for longer. Sales of so-called smartphones, such as the RIM BlackBerry or the Apple iPhone, have remained strong, growing 4 per cent in the first quarter, according to the research group IDC. At a preview of the N97 in Dubai last week, Henri Mattila, the Nokia head of marketing for Nseries handsets in the Middle East, said Gulf countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia would be among the first in the world to get the device. Focus groups and research panels were held among consumers in both countries during the development of the N97, in recognition of the importance of the markets for smartphone sales. Despite a hefty price tag - estimated at ?599 (Dh3,000) when announced last December - and a cautious economic environment, Mr Mattila said he expected the phone to perform strongly when launched here next month. "It is expensive, but you know that when somebody really wants something - when they see it and feel it and know that it is a perfect fit for their life - in this part of the world, with such aspirational consumers, they will make it happen," he said. The N97 is Nokia's second major release of a touch screen, web browsing, multimedia phone. The Nokia 5800, released late last year, has been a major success for the company, and was a rare highlight in otherwise grim first-quarter results released by Nokia last month. The company sold 2.6 million 5800 handsets in the quarter, despite the device being released in only a handful of markets. While the 5800 is targeted at younger consumers who want to play music on their phones, the N97 has been developed as a more powerful internet-enabled device, with the company often referring to it as a "mobile computer". The touch screen slides out from the device and tilts upwards to reveal a full physical keyboard, making the phone resemble a miniature laptop. June will be a busy month for the smartphone market. The N97 is scheduled to be released, and Apple will launch an updated version of the operating system for its iPhone. A new iPhone handset is widely expected to be launched at the same time. While the iPhone was the most popular smartphone in the world for most of 2008, its sales were overtaken in the first quarter of this year by the BlackBerry Curve. Palm, the US company that is best known for its range of small hand-held computers, is also expected this month to launch its first touch-screen smartphone, the Palm Pre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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