The highlight of the BlackBerry 10 launch this morning wasn't so much the new phones and the new operating system as the man who MC-ed the pre-show, a cheesy opening act that turned out to be a precursor to an event full of desperate gimmicks. Part game-show host and part Bar Mitzvah pump-up guy, this as yet unknown man (pictured above) used his sultry voice and TV good looks to set the tone for a company that was very much acknowledging this latest round of mobile innovation could be its last hurrah — or the beginning of a bold, weird new relevancy. And even if those strong new hardware and software offerings from BlackBerry turn out to be popular and bring back the company from the depths of iPhone and Galaxy dominance, today's event really could be BlackBerry's last moment of relevancy when it comes to cultural cool. With layoffs, slow sales, and loss of caché among users, BlackBerry has seen a quick deterioration in the age of the smartphone. Not that Research in Motion was ever very cool beyond the corporate crowd, but the company's rebranding, as simply BlackBerry, came with an outward appearance not of confidence so much as outright desperation.
Things got weird even before CEO Thorsten Heins took the stage. The MC led us through not one but two cheesy people-who-love-BlackBerry videos, one of which featured a fake bumper-sticker campaign: "Honk if you want BlackBerry 10."
After a late-night-TV-style interview with Alec Saunders, the man who worked so hard to woo developers, our MC gave a haircut tothe editor of Crackberry.com, known as "CrackBerry Kevin" — who is the last remaining BlackBerry fanatic, it seems. Kevin had vowed that he would not cut his hair until the arrival of BlackBerry 10. With this being the big (weird) debut event and all, Kevin stepped right up and got his ponytail hacked off onstage, complete with his "#1 BlackBerry Fanboy" shirt:
Things settled down once our host introduced Heins, and the antics took a backseat to the news. First up was the official end of RIM as we know it: "We have redefined ourselves inside and out," Heins said. "RIM becomes BlackBerry! It is one brand, it is one promise." And the reaction was pretty much: Uh, okay. After the requisite audience applause pause, the audience "murmured loudly," according to CNN Money's Julianne Pepitone.
After that brief respite from the contrived silliness and the branding machinations came the debut of the Q10 and Z10 phones (which you can read all about here), Heins rounded out the performance with the announcement of Alicia Keys as BlackBerry's new global creative director, surfacing a whole new level of gimmick:
This time, though, the audience actually clapped — Alicia Keys is famous, after all. And while the choice of Keys is weird enough, she's not the first celebrity to hold a fake position at a big tech company. Except Keys uses an iPhone, or at least she did as recently as last week. She's also all over Instagram, an app that BlackBerry 10 does not yet support. It's not like Keys has stuck with BlackBerry during the rough times, either. Once on stage, the Grammy winner added to the weird factor, going on about how hotter phones at the gym lured her away from BlackBerry. But, now — now that the Canadian company is paying her to be a spokesperson — she will accept her ex-phone boyfriend back into her life. And with that metaphor — comparing her cellphone to a lover — Keys closed the show.
The goofiness can be read in various ways, depending on BlackBerry's sense of its own public awareness. If the tired phone-maker was being earnest, maybe it really did want to try that hard. Or maybe BlackBerry is playing from behind, in which case it just went all out. Or maybe everything just read kind of sad to an audience that knows how hard BlackBerry's comeback will be. These tech events are always full of bad jokes and corny videos. BlackBerry's gadgets, however, somehow failed to overshaddow the dumb stuff.