The BlackBerry Torch's Biggest Failure: RIM's Ridiculous ExpectationsS

The BlackBerry Torch only sold 150,000 units in its first three days? That's not bad at all. The real disappointment here is how deeply RIM bought into its own hype.

The hordes are proclaiming the Torch a massive failure, and they're right—but not because of how many units they sold. 150,000 handsets is a lot of phones. In fact, it's totally in line with other major launches of the last couple of years: Sprint sold that many Evo 4Gs in its first three days, and it's three times as many as the Palm Pre managed at launch.

Who it didn't compete with, of course, is the iPhone. The 3GS and 3G both moved a million over their opening weekends, and 1.7 million people took home an iPhone 4 at launch. And that's where RIM got into trouble.

The BlackBerry Torch wasn't just another phone to RIM. It was the phone, that RIM CEO Jim Balsillie openly described as "a quantum leap over anything that's out there." Multiple videos hyping BlackBerry 6 oozed a jazzy confidence that bordered on cocksure. A mysterious monolith display in AT&T stores cranked up the gears of the hype machine. They pushed this phone like it was their last chance.

All of which I'd say is just good marketing—if they had just been pitching to consumers. But it turns out RIM was buying it too.

It's not certain how many BlackBerry Torch units RIM shipped. What is clear is that they expected way more than 150,000 phones to fly off the shelves. Just a week after launch, online retailers have already slashed the price by half, [ed. WSJ reports that Amazon has been selling the Torch for $99 since launch, which makes the first weekend sales numbers even more disappointing] and you're not likely to find a store that's sold out.

What's crazy is that RIM apparently expected the Torch to have iPhone-like sales out of the gate. However much social they cram into BlackBerry 6, their core market is still enterprise—and companies update hardware when they have to, not when you want them to. The iPhone 4 also launched internationally on five carriers; the BlackBerry Torch is US-only for now, and just on AT&T. Sharing a carrier with the iPhone 4 is another huge obstacle; any AT&T customer who might interested in a iPhone-like handset is probably already locked into an iPhone contract. Even if BlackBerry Torch had been everything RIM said it would be, 150,000 would still have been a reasonable estimate. Strong, even.

The problems were compounded, of course, by uniformly unenthusiastic reviews. This was a phone that claimed to be an evolutionary step forward, but still somehow had an inexcusably wimpy 480x360-pixel 3.2-inch display and 624 MHz processor. That's not even keeping up with the big boys, much less surpassing them. How could RIM not have seen that?

If 150,000 BlackBerry Torches had been on shelves at launch, and if it had been positioned as a solid enterprise phone with some nice social touches, we'd all be saying how impressive it was that they were selling out left and right. Instead, the Torch gets a fire sale. And RIM's got no one to blame but their own hype.