The new BlackBerry: Party in the front, uncertainty in the back

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 30, 2013

From The News Desk

Jokes aside, the rebranding of Research In Motion to Blackberry should smother any doubts about BlackBerry's commitment to, well, BlackBerry.

Today's event announcing the company's rebranding and the launch of Blackberry 10 was... bizarre. BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins didn't take the stage until about twenty minutes in, ceding the spotlight to a so-cliche-he-transcended-cliche "host" who babbled about videos and cut off a person's pony tail. No, really -- RIM (it was still RIM then) thought it would be a good idea to cut someone's hair in front of a global audience waiting to finally see BlackBerry 10.

And that was the event's peak. Heins and company rattled off a bunch of buzzwords, from "Internet of Things" to "mobile experience" and "hyper-connected socially." Then the devices, the touch-screen Z10 and the keyboard-equipped Q10, were revealed to a smattering of applause. BlackBerry 10 was demoed, Alicia Keys came on stage, and then it was time for more buzzwords. Cue curtains.

A few thoughts:

BlackBerry is caught between the consumer and the enterprise markets. For all the talk of executives keeping their BlackBerry devices in belt holsters and the operating system's one-time ubiquity in enterprise, other platforms have clearly stepped into BlackBerry's territory. The "bring your own device" movement is in full swing, and many are choosing iPhones and Android smartphones over the corporate-mandate BlackBerrys.

BlackBerry has realized this, and emphasized both corporate and consumer aspects of the BlackBerry 10 at today's event. The company talked up BlackBerry 10's security and connection to contacts' social profiles in one breath and then switched gears to exclaim excitement over "Fruit Ninja" and "Jetpack Joyride" in the next. Other features, like BlackBerry Balance, are quite explicitly meant to bridge the concept of a "work phone" and a "personal phone."

There was a lot of talk about platforms, yet BlackBerry 10 was only shown on mobile. Despite Heins' repeated mentions of the Internet of Things and claims that BlackBerry 10 took so long to release because it's a real platform play meant to power all of the devices around you, the only devices shown running the operating system were smartphones. This is likely the most important device category that BlackBerry can market to, but it felt like Heins was playing a game of "just the tip" (of the iceberg, of course) with a real, BlackBerry platform-dominated future.

The audience doesn't care about a physical keyboard. No matter how many times anyone says how important the physical keyboard is to Blackberry -- the company was practically built on the feature in years past -- the form factor is quickly becoming an anachronism. No one in the audience clapped for the Q10, the keyboard-equipped device, until Heins prompted them -- later, when he emphasized the keyboard again, just one person felt it was worth a clap.

Now, one audience isn't going to make-or-break the Q10, and it wouldn't be a surprise to learn they keyboard is popular with a specific subset of users, but it shows just how different the market has become since BlackBerry's dominance.

To be a hardware maker, or not to be a hardware maker? BlackBerry's keeping its options open. Rebranding to BlackBerry shows that the company formerly known as RIM is committed to the platform, but that leaves its future as a hardware maker open to interpretation.

The company could easily tell investors, customers and press that becoming BlackBerry shows its commitment to releasing mobile devices. It could also tell that same group that, in the event of a sale, that BlackBerry is all about the platform, not the hardware, and that the rebranding was meant to prepare stockholders for the future of the company. (More on what that might mean here.)

All told, this event perfectly captures what RIM/BlackBerry have become to the mobile market.  That zany, half-baked intro was the epitome of corporate culture trying on a new, carefree facade. The rebranding could be taken to mean any number of things, as could many of the corporate platitudes that Heins spewed all over the audience. And despite its best efforts, BlackBerry is still caught between its hallowed corporate past and its rocky, consumer-driven present and future.

Oh, and in keeping with the status quo: Wall Street tanked BlackBerry's stock this morning, just as it has for the last few years.