Samsung's new folding phones are breaking, and it's a potential fiasco
- Multiple journalists say that their early review units of the new Samsung Galaxy Fold have broken within days of getting them.
- The buzzy device is expected to be the first foldable smartphone from a major manufacturer when it officially launches next week - though experts we spoke to say that it wouldn't be crazy for Samsung to delay the launch.
- But if the hardware issue is widespread, it could be a nightmare for the company, and highlights the risks of rushing to be first.
- And it comes just a few years after the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco, in which some of Samsung's flagship smartphones overheated and caught fire, and had to be discontinued.
- For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.
Multiple journalists are reporting that their review copies of Samsung's new folding phone have had catastrophic failures just a week before the official launch - a potential fiasco that threatens the company's fragile reputation.
On Wednesday, multiple tech reporters took to Twitter to raise concerns about the screen on the Galaxy Fold, a highly anticipated device that is scheduled to be the first major smartphone with a foldable screen.
A video posted by CNBC tech editor Steve Kovachshowed the left-hand side of the screen on the outlet's review unit malfunctioning "after one day of use." Mark Gurman from Bloomberg also posted photos of the screen progressively detiorating to a state of total unusability, writing: "The screen on my Galaxy Fold review unit is completely broken and unusable just two days in."
Dieter Bohn at The Verge, meanwhile, reported that a mysterious bulge had appeared in his review unit's screen, and Marques Brownlee, a popular YouTube gadgets review, also reported having screen issues.
While it's not yet clear how widespread the issue is, the fact that four have already broken after just two days of normal use doesn't bode well for the prospects of the device. Some back-of-the-envelope math: Assuming roughly 1,000 review units were sent to reporters, that suggests a failure rate of roughly 0.4% within just two days. That is clearly completely unacceptable for any consumer product - much less a high-end smartphone that retails for $1,980 (R28,000) in the US.
And the potential crisis is especially acute for Samsung, as the company has only recently recovered from another smartphone crisis. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was a nightmare for the firm in 2016, with the device's batteries overheating, catching fire, and exploding, prompting a global recall and ultimately a complete cancellation of the entire product.
The company has worked hard to rebuild its reputation in the subsequent years, and another high-profile failure of a flagship device could do serious harm to its status as a maker of high-quality, premium handsets.
"If it turns out that Samsung's flagship phone, at an unprecedented price point, is breaking at a high rate, Samsung will have to postpone the launch," Avi Greengart, the lead analyst at Techsponential, told Business Insider. "After the Note 7's disastrous battery problems - and Samsung's poor initial response - I would hope that the company has better procedures in place to deal with production problems."
So what's going on?
There seem to be a few different issues occurring.
The phone comes with this protective layer/film. Samsung says you are not supposed to remove it. I removed it, not knowing youâ€™re not supposed to (consumers wonâ€™t know either). It appeared removable in the left corner, so I took it off. I believe this contributed to the problem. pic.twitter.com/fU646D2zpY— Mark Gurman (@markgurman) April 17, 2019
However, Kovach wrote on Twitter that CNBC didn't remove the film, but that the screen on their device broke anyway. And Bohn's issue, the bulge, appears to be completely different, with an as-yet-unknown cause. He also didn't remove the film, for the record.
All this suggest multiple points of failure for the device, rather than a single issue, potentially making it harder to rectify.
It's also worth noting here that some other reporters' review units are fine. Business Insider's Lisa Eadicicco has been test-driving the Galaxy Fold and hasn't encountered any issues so far, while The Washington Post's Geoffrey Fowler did an impromptu stress-test, opening and closing it 100 times in one go, and didn't find any issues. That's not to say these devices couldn't malfunction later, of course. It's only been two days, after all.
It looks really bad. But we should exercise some caution.
Samsung has yet to comment publicly about the issues, and it's wise not to jump to conclusions too early.
"The most important thing to do right now is get the facts. There's a chance that the first batch of units had some issues and the rest are fine," technology analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy said.
"Once root cause has been established you go from there ... If it's a small batch issue, inventory would likely get tested. If it's a design issue overall it would take some time to remedy."
He added: "How Samsung handles the situation will determine brand impact."
In other words: The review devices provided to journalists might not be truly representative of the finished product, meaning the devices that go on sale to consumers may be problem-free. But if that's not the case, then it's up to Samsung to fix things to avoid another reputational disaster. Samsung was heavily criticized over its initial response to the Note 7 issues; if it makes similar missteps again, it will suggest the company hasn't learned from its mistakes and likely exacerbate the crisis.
At the very least, Samsung will need to likely need to provide additional guidance to ensure consumers don't also remove the film layer - printed warnings in the box and instructions to salespeople," Greengart suggests. If professional tech reviewers are making that mistake, then consumers almost certainly will as well.
Even if the device is ultimately in a state acceptable for sale, the fate of the planned launch next week seems uncertain. "I don't see Samsung launching it (shipping it to consumers) until root cause is determined," wrote Moorhead.
Greengart added: "I'm sure Samsung is tearing apart the damaged review units and seeing if there is a common point of failure. However, if it turns out that Samsung's flagship phone, at an unprecedented price point, is breaking at a high rate, Samsung will have to postpone the launch."
That said, if Samsung does successfully fix the device before launching - even if it means postponing that roll-out - then the long-term damage to the company may actually be minimal.
"Bad press is bad press, and that's unfortunate, and no-one wants it," said Stephen Beck, founder of consultancy cg42. "But at the end of the day, the consumers are generally pretty forgiving if the company ... does right by them."
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