Skip to main content

Qualcomm's car crash keynote at CES: was it actually clever?

Qualcomm kicked off its CES-opening keynote with a loose skit featuring bubbly, gadget-toting, 20-something caricatures who were so off-putting they actually seemed designed to elicit mockery from anyone with a passing knowledge of how actual people use modern technology.

And mock they did. As the sketch unfolded in real time, Twitter blew up with the power of a million exploding self-styled tech influencers mind-melding a collective OMFG. The Verge produced an illustrated dissection of the keynote and even slapped together a video montage of the worst moments (check it out below).

Truly, there was a lot not to like about this monstrosity. The atrociously drawn characters were faced with a script that might have been lifted from a parody of a rejected Disney Channel treatment written in the binary language of moisture vaporators and translated into Openglopish.

You had the status-obsessed, social network-addicted almost-mean girl who's clueless about anything more technical than the "Like" button. The boo-yah-bellowing, thoroughly unconvincing video game gangsta with the manic shrillness of a person speaking YouTube comments out loud. And finally, the faux-serious, skinny suit-wearing entrepreneurial dimwit with a hush-hush "billion-dollar" business plan somehow involving "funny cat videos meets Gangnam Style ... Boom!"

Ridiculous? Of course. Offensive? Perhaps - the lone female character's cartoonish narcissism was particularly wince-inducing. The main problem with the Qualcomm keynote sketch, though, was the relentless embarrassment of it all. Embarrassment of the vicarious kind that starts pulling at the bottom of your stomach with the realisation that what you're witnessing isn't a joke but something that takes itself seriously.

Embarrassment for the actors up on stage and for whatever brain trust greenlighted this thing. Embarrassment for Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs and the other execs and celebrities who had to join him during the keynote. And finally, embarrassment for everybody watching who, by association, somehow became a participant in the idea that all of this was a good idea.

All of which is to say that it's perfectly understandable that Qualcomm is getting raked over the coals for its first stab at the CES opening keynote slot previously owned by Microsoft. But some of that criticism misses the point.

For starters, that terrible opening act was successful in one very important way - it wasn't boring. Stomach-churning, but definitely not boring. If you watched it live, you'll probably agree that it was impossible to tear your eyes away from the disaster happening in front of you. In that sense, the core message Qualcomm was trying to get across - its "Born Mobile" theme - worked pretty well.

We're still talking about it, after all.

More importantly, it's sometimes easy to forget that a company like Qualcomm may not actually be trying to win all of us over, particularly those of us who have very definite opinions on what constitutes smart media messaging but don't happen to buy a lot of computer chips.

It's easy to forget that Qualcomm isn't selling subtlety or insiderish cynicism or an archly self-aware meta-narrative. Qualcomm is selling Snapdragon processors. And it's selling them to a handful of North American and European companies, but these days, mainly to the suits running Asia's plethora of computer manufacturers and device makers and gadget peddlers.

Many of Qualcomm's most important customers aren't necessarily immersed in a culture of scepticism towards tech PR and marketing, let alone tuned to the nuances of the English language. Speaking to them in broad strokes, particularly in the context of a keynote presentation to a live audience of thousands, isn't stupid - it's actually pretty smart.

By way of example, you and I may consider that as far as Rowan Atkinson vehicles go, Black Adder is far superior to Mr. Bean. But it's the Bean character and not Edmund Blackadder who has become a worldwide hit, largely because his wordless, slapstick humour doesn't require the audience to understand a lick of English.

Which brings us to the most painful part about the Qualcomm sketch, at least for those of us who found it so dreadful. Because if we really weren't the intended target for this farce, the question becomes, what was our role in it? Unfortunately, those buffoonish stereotypes up on stage weren't supposed to be weird creatures from another planet - they were supposed to be us. The consumers of technology who freely spend the dollars coveted by the makers of gadgets powered by Qualcomm chips.

See, we weren't the audience for Qualcomm's "Born Mobile" performance. We were the subject.

And what's most embarrassing in all of this is that not only does Qualcomm think of us as frivolous, delusional, ambulatory ATM machines, but there's a good chance that the seller of the next mobile device you buy does too.

Sadly, they're probably right.