Skip to main content

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

blackberry ceo apple encryption passport press announcement
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.

Editors' Recommendations

The Pixel 7 accidentally killed the OnePlus 10T — and it isn’t pretty
The OnePlus 10T and Google Pixel 7's camera modules.

The OnePlus 10T is a strange phone, and I didn’t really take to it when I first reviewed it at the end of September. As I prepared to revisit the 10T to see if time had been kind to it, I had to swap my SIM card from a phone that’s going to cause the OnePlus phone more problems: The Google Pixel 7.

After using them sid by side for a day, the question becomes is there anything about the OnePlus 10T that should convince you to buy it over the Pixel 7?
The importance of good design

Read more
Oppo and MediaTek say building a smartphone isn’t anything like Ikea
The back of the Oppo Reno 8 Pro held in a mans hand.

“It’s hard for people to understand how these things are being created and how much work goes into building a smartphone. It’s not just picking components out of boxes. We’re not going to Ikea to build a living room.”

Arne Herkelmann, head of product management at Oppo Europe, smiled as he told me this, and I nodded in agreement. Making a smartphone is immensely complex, and good collaborations are imperative to its success.

Read more
It’s late 2022, and Verizon and AT&T still can’t beat T-Mobile’s 5G network
The T-Mobile logo on a smartphone.

It’s been 10 months since Verizon and AT&T flipped the switch on their new C-band 5G spectrum, but it appears both carriers still have their work cut out for them if they want to catch up to T-Mobile.

Market analyses and independent tests have agreed for years that T-Mobile is the fastest and most reliable 5G carrier in the U.S. That’s not surprising as it had a massive advantage by holding licenses for the crucial midrange spectrum that provides the best balance between range and speed. While Verizon’s early high-frequency mmWave rollouts allowed it to boast raw speeds that were significantly faster, those were confined to about 1% of its subscriber base.

Read more