Was BlackBerry World 2012 RIM's last hurrah?

The DJs played on in the epic party of RIM's annual conference. Attendees who love these huge bashes hope there's more to come.

The Martinez Brothers are featured in several BlackBerry commercials. And they were on hand at the big BlackBerry World bash at Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

ORLANDO, Fla. -- There's nothing not cool about the Martinez Brothers.

Straight from a visit to Berlin, the global epicenter of euro club music, the disc jockey brothers (yes, they're really brothers) sat for an interview with me here the morning after they spun tunes at the blowout party that's become synonymous with Research In Motion's annual BlackBerry conference.

Quick-witted, amiable, and dressed in T-shirts and jeans, the Bronx natives were the picture of the youthful, cutting-edge merger of pop culture and the tech industry. So much so that I had to ask myself: What are they doing here?

"I have enough entertainment in my life," said Steve, 23, the older of the two brothers. "I don't need a phone to entertain me. I just need it to keep things in order. I need it to get things done."

They're also the new face of RIM in an aggressive advertising campaign to remake the company's image into something younger, cooler, dare I say it, Apple-like. As I chatted with them, that cynical inner voice added: "Good luck with that."

Since the introduction of the first iPhone five years ago, the Canadian company has gone from the admired leader of the smartphone world to the brink of also-ran, with some analysts predicting its market share could drop to 5 percent by the end of the year.

During the most recent quarter, RIM reported it had lost about $125 million compared to a profit of $934 million during the same quarter a year earlier. The company has about $1.77 billion in cash. And even though executives at the BlackBerry World conference kept pointing to growth and enthusiasm for its products overseas and that it still has 77 million customers, in its fiscal fourth quarter the company saw a nearly 80 percent drop in worldwide BlackBerry shipments .

More than 5,000 customers, partners, developers, and fans of BlackBerry were invited to the annual party.

New smartphones and slick new software are on the way, but will they come too late? The morning RIM's new CEO Thorsten Heins unveiled the new BlackBerry 10 software sans any new devices , the company's already depressed stock price dropped roughly 5 percent. Two days later, as the market had time to analyze and digest the news, the company's share price was down 15 percent to its lowest point in eight years.

Scary stuff. But the DJs played on Tuesday night at the RIM party at the Universal theme park. It's easy to make the alternate-reality joke about RIM and its executives promising a turnaround at a theme park that specializes in alternate realities like old-timey movie sets that look like Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York City. But there we were, a blowout bash for 5,000 people run by a company on the ropes, entertaining customers and developers who are simply hoping the party rolls on.

"I sure hope RIM is around next year to throw another big party," said Arjan Govers, an account manager for the Dutch carrier KPN as he lit his cigarette. We were standing in the audience near the music stage, where the Martinez Brothers did their thing. "This is my first one and I don't want it to be my last. RIM flew me over here. Paid for everything. It's been totally fun."

Govers said there is still some demand for BlackBerry devices among corporate customers in the Netherlands. But it's waning. And just like in the U.S., BlackBerry is no longer associated with anything remotely cool. Most people are more interested in the iPhone and Android. He reached in his back pocket and pulled out his iPhone.

"This is what I use as my personal device," he said. "I can get any phone for free. But this is the one I like best. The BlackBerry I use for work."

In each MGM fantasy "neighborhood" there were tables piled with local cuisine. In New York, there were flat-bread cubano and deli sandwiches. San Francisco had stir fry, dumplings, and mini egg rolls.

Wandering through old New York, I could hear "Tonight" from the musical "West Side Story." While strolling through a replica of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, i could hear the faint sounds of BlackBerry World attendees enjoying their exclusive rides on one of the park's several roller coasters.

"Next year, the party will be even bigger," said Oscar Castellano, RIM's director of business affairs, told me as we stood outside Mel's Drive-In Diner near faux Hollywood Boulevard. "We are totally energized."

No doubt, but customers and development partners are worried. Many that had been exclusively developing apps for BlackBerry have already begun diversifying and developing for Apple's iOS and Google's Android devices.

Donnie Niles, who works for Groton Utilities, a small power company in Connecticut, laughed when I asked him if he thought there would be a party here next year.

"We were just discussing that," he said, glancing at his co-worker, who took a sip of his Heineken. "I honestly don't know. We're going to keep BlackBerry for now. But I'm skeptical about their future."

BlackBerry developers said that the technology demonstrated at the show looks promising, but they fear the bad press and the depressed stock could lead to a takeover.

"The BlackBerry 10 software looks encouraging for the direction of the technology," said Chairul Irawan, principal at Seatech Consulting Group, which helps develop applications for BlackBerry users in Indonesia. "But today's presentation should have been for the market. They need to convince consumers and the market in general that they have a product that is competitive. But they didn't do that."

Irawan said RIM is still dominant in Indonesia, where his firm focuses its application development. He said the No. 1 feature is the BBM messaging service. But he said like other social-media tools that once dominated, BlackBerry's Messenger could be replaced with something else. He used MySpace and Friendster as examples. Just a few short years ago, Friendster was huge in Southeast Asia. Now it's Facebook.

Mel's Drive-In at Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The next morning, the Martinez Brothers were also talking up BBM, or BlackBerry Messenger. Steve and Christian, 21, have been spinning and deejaying since they were 16 and 14 years old. They're better known on the club scene in Europe and Australia. RIM recently hired them as spokespeople for the BlackBerry and they've already cut several TV commercials and have billboards up in many major markets, like New York City.

The brothers, it was clear, are serious people. Cool? Most definitely. Frivolous? No way. They use their phones to make calls, send e-mails to friends and family, and keep up with fans on Facebook and Twitter. They have no time for games of Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. And they have no use for other social-networking apps.

When I asked the brothers if they could imagine a day when RIM and its BlackBerry didn't exist, they shrugged and said not really. Remembering what Irawan had told me the night before at the party about MySpace and Friendster, I asked them if they had ever used those old social-networking sites. Their publicist chimed in. Yes they had. In fact, their first big break came from a video taken at a music festival in Miami in 2005 or 2006 that was posted to their MySpace page.

Are you active on your MySpace page now? I asked.

"No," laughed the younger brother, Chris. "Everyone's on Facebook."

 

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