BlackBerry Tour trackball issues--how widespread?

An investment research firm claims that up to 50 percent of buyers are returning the smartphone. But Sprint says the percentage isn't even close to that.

BlackBerry Tour, which is available to both Verizon Wireless and Sprint customers, is under scrutiny for trackball issues that have led some Tour owners to return the smartphones.

The question is: how widespread is the problem?

TownHall Investment Research's David Eller said in a research note this week that he has consulted "experts" who have determined Research In Motion is having a "big trackball problem, especially with the Tour," which was launched in July.

BlackBerry Tour CBS Interactive

Eller wrote that BlackBerry Tour owners are being forced "to clean the trackball frequently and preferably with compressed air." When they don't clean the trackball, the issues get worse, leading them to bring the device back to the store for repairs or returns.

It has gotten so bad, Eller contends, that Sprint's "return rates have been climbing toward 50 percent."

A 50 percent return rate on a mobile phone would be huge. But Sprint is telling a much different story.

"We experienced a small percentage of early production Blackberry Tour smartphones with trackball issues," a Sprint representative said in a phone interview Wednesday night. "As soon as the issue was identified, we worked closely with our partners at RIM to resolve the problem quickly. Any customer experiencing issues with the Tour should visit a Sprint service and repair center."

Sprint, which said it had never worked with TownHall Investment Research prior to the research note's release this week, said the number of BlackBerry Tour returns it experienced "weren't even close to 50 percent." The Sprint representative said it was "a very small percentage." He wouldn't release exact figures but did say the percentage was in line with other new devices that experience some hardware problems at launch.

But Eller didn't only mention Sprint. In the same note, he wrote that "Verizon is experiencing serious problems with the Tour." He claimed that "Verizon will soon be getting new smartphones from Motorola and Palm that compete with RIM. Verizon is angry about this recurring trackball problem and is telling its retailers to expect strong support for the new Motorola phone."

However, Verizon spokesman Jim Gerace said in a phone call Thursday that the "BlackBerry Tour has the lowest return rate of any smartphone Verizon Wireless is selling. In fact, its return rate is one of the lowest among all the products our company sells."

That said, Gerace did acknowledge that BlackBerry Tour devices did experience trackball issues when they were first released. He said that his company "caught it pretty early and we didn't sell many with the bad trackball."

Gerace offered a biting response yet when I asked him about the accuracy of Eller's contention that Verizon is angry at RIM and will be strongly supporting a new Motorola device.

"That is blatantly not true," Gerace told me. "Just look around at our advertising. Does it look like we're not pushing the BlackBerry Tour?"

RIM did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Assuming Sprint's internal return-rate figures are accurate and Verizon Wireless' account is true, just how could TownHall Investment Research miss the mark by such a wide margin? When asked about the discrepancy, TownHall partner Gerard Hallaren said he stands by his company's report.

"TownHall is a different Investment Research firm," Hallaren said over e-mail. "We believe customer activity is more important than management guidance. We have a growing army of practitioners, consultants and analysts upon whom we rely for the bulk of our information. This Tour piece actually came from three different sources--a channel expert, a Sprint expert and a Verizon expert--and the message was quite consistent."

After the company's original research note was published, Hallaren said, Sprint contacted TownHall. Sprint acknowledged that there were issues, Hallaren said, but that it was a very small percentage--the same thing Sprint told me.

In a second research note, TownHall wrote about that conversation with Sprint.

"After seeing our earlier comments on the BlackBerry Tour, Sprint investor relations called us to present its side of the story," the company wrote. "In the conversation, Sprint indicated that 'RIM is one of its highest quality suppliers. After limited initial problems, return rates on the Tour dropped to low levels.' While we are happy that Sprint is having a better experience than nearly anyone else indicates, this does not explain to us how one can buy a Tour without a contract on eBay for about $200, or the same as the 2 year contract price from Sprint."

Customers in BlackBerry forums have definitely been discussing Tour trackball issues for months.

Here are CNET's reviews of the Sprint and Verizon Wireless versions of the device. Note: no trackball issues were mentioned in either review.

Updated at 1:26 p.m. PDT to include statements from Verizon Wireless.

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