BlackBerry’s secret weapon isn’t the Passport, it’s a new CEO who can laugh

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Read our full BlackBerry Passport review.

Boring old BlackBerry thought the new Passport smartphone would be the most compelling thing at its recent launch event, but it was wrong. Instead, the square smartphone was overshadowed by the man who introduced it: New CEO John Chen. Engaging, witty, charismatic, and biting when he needed to be – it turns out Chen is quite the showman, and he could be exactly what the company needs at this difficult time.

Far from a stoney-faced company man, Chen was happy to poke fun at BlackBerry itself.

Chen has remained fairly anonymous since joining BlackBerry. When discussed in the press, it has been his business acumen at the forefront, and not his personality. It’s assumed this was shorthand for him having no personality at all, which really wouldn’t be that surprising. After all, Chen has been portrayed as a numbers man, one who is focused on emotionlessly turning companies around and selling off the good bits. Hardly a job which requires an effervescent character.

However, the man who stood in front of the audience on September 24 wasn’t what we expected. If you didn’t see the live streamed event, Chen played host, but handed off the technical talk and demos to a crew of bland BlackBerry blokes. Wow, did the proceedings suffer when he disappeared. BlackBerry would have done better to lose all the noise, let Chen do the Passport’s intro, and get out while it was ahead.

Willing to poke fun at the company

The first hint Chen was different to the rest was his use of prompt cards. They were in his hand, but he rarely looked at them, yet his delivery showed up everyone else on stage. Yes, Wayne Gretzky, we are referring to your inability to correctly say the one endorsement line you’ve doubtless said a thousand times before.

Far from a stoney-faced company man, Chen was happy to poke fun at BlackBerry itself. On the subject of the new, hugely expensive $2350 Porsche Design P’9983, he noted “a lot of people like it,” before clarifying that “a lot of rich people like it.” Could you imagine Tim Cook saying that about the 128GB iPhone 6 Plus? Moving on to the Passport, he got the key benefits of the device across, but added that the only credit he could take for its existence was that “he didn’t kill it.” This is the CEO of BlackBerry talking, and at a press event streamed internationally. It’s rare enough for someone of his stature so speak so candidly, but it’s also completely at odds with this awful, stuffy, “serious business” profile BlackBerry’s so keen to bring up.

Guess what, BlackBerry? You were boring in the consumer world, and you’re boring in the enterprise world, too. The proof was right there on stage! Bloomberg’s big app announcement was called “Bloomberg Professional App for BlackBerry Enterprise.” Catchy, huh? But worse was to come. For its logistics app demo, ProntoForms’ CEO took on the persona of “Dave Jones, a Health and Safety Inspector working for an oil and gas company in Northern Alberta.” BlackBerry even expects the people to use their phones are to be mind-numbingly dull. If it wasn’t so unintentionally hilarious, I’d have been reaching for the strychnine.

Let another John light the way

Personality, according to Jules Winnfield, goes a long way. An outspoken CEO, whom people like and agree with, can do amazing things for a company’s public image. Of course, Steve Jobs is the obvious name to mention here, but it’s T-Mobile boss John Legere who’s proving that tech companies don’t all have to be run by anonymous automatons. He appears to own more magenta-colored t-shirts than suits, swears during press conferences, has more energy than a room full of puppies, and tweets pictures like this. You certainly can’t ignore him.

Behind that greyed out veil of corporate boredom, there has always been evidence of life at BlackBerry.

The point is, he runs a mobile operator, a company considered by most to be a necessary evil; but T-Mobile’s growing fast. Legere makes it seem cool to be a subscriber, an astonishing feat in itself, but also evidence that if people like you, they will listen to your message, and be more tempted to buy your stuff. Tech-land isn’t awash with great characters at the top of its big companies, but Asus’ Jonny Shih, famous for his magician-style, cabaret-tastic unveiling of the PadFone, and the larger-than-life, over-excitable Steve Ballmer, famous for making some ridiculous faces, also stand out.

Why so serious, BlackBerry?

At BlackBerry, John Chen replaced Thorstein Heins. He may well be a brilliant businessman, but   Heins’ performance at the embarrassingly flashy BlackBerry 10 launch was as vividly exciting and free spirited as the OS he introduced. Before Heins came Mike Lazaridis, and the most interesting thing he ever did was have a little tantrum during a BBC interview, along with Jim “I’ll answer my own questions on this rubbish product, thanks” Balsillie.

However, behind that greyed out veil of corporate boredom, there has always been evidence of life at BlackBerry. Sometimes, the downtrodden workers broke free of the restraints, and sang amazing songs about APIs, SDKs, and apps to the tune of 80s power ballads. It’s this (well, maybe not exactly this, but you know what I mean) that’s not only lacking at BlackBerry, but at many other tech companies.

John Chen has questioned whether BlackBerry could ever become iconic again. It’s highly unlikely to happen with all the lifeless “serious business” talk, so here’s an idea: Push the personalities to the forefront, remember people buy people first, and become interesting. We think you’ve got something to say, Mr. Chen, and we want to hear it. The best way to make BlackBerry cool again may be to admit just how uncool it is, and have a laugh.

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