It was one of the best smartphones ever made. And it was one of the most disastrous products ever launched.
That is the maddening ambiguity behind the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which saw 3-million units recalled after batteries began malfunctioning. This week Samsung released its findings on what went wrong. Tellingly, however, the revelation was limited to the technical flaws, and did not delve into the strategic story. That, it appears, will remain an internal autopsy.
Koh Dong-jin, President of the Mobile Communications Business division of Samsung Electronics, announced the results of the investigation. He was joined on stage by executives from three independent industry groups that had conducted their own investigations into the malfunctions, namely Exponent, UL and TUV Rheinland. There was to be no cover-up.
They agreed that a design flaw had led to the first batch of phones catching alight: The battery’s external casing was too small for its components, leading to pinching of the top corner of the battery by the pouch that held it. This caused a short-circuit and, inevitably, ignition.
To make matters worse, according to UL, when things did go wrong, the high energy density of the battery design meant they went badly wrong.
The Note 7 could have survived the initial recall, but the batteries provided by a second supplier introduced a new flaw. Not only did it have defects in the welding, or what a Samsung YouTube video described as “an abnormal weld spot” that led to an internal short circuit, but some came without protective tape.
Guess which supplier won’t be invited back in a hurry?
Koh expressed his sincere apology and gratitude to customers, operators and partners, and unveiled new measures Samsung has taken to respond to the incidents.
“Based on what the company learned from the investigation, Samsung has implemented a broad range of internal quality and safety processes to further enhance product safety,” it said in a statement released on Monday. “These include additional protocols, such as multi-layer safety measures and an Eight-Point Battery Safety Check.”
Samsung also announced a Battery Advisory Group made up of external advisers “to ensure it maintains a clear and objective perspective on battery safety and innovation”. Members include a professor of chemistry from the University of Cambridge and professors of materials science and engineering from Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Koh added: “The lessons of the past several months are now deeply reflected in our processes and culture. Samsung Electronics will be working hard to regain consumer trust.”
The announcement came as a relief to local executives, who had to keep the media in a holding pattern, not only to explain the Note 7, but also to build anticipation for the forthcoming Galaxy S8.
“We are pleased that the reasons for the Galaxy Note7 incident have finally been clarified,” said Craige Fleischer, director of Integrated Mobility at Samsung South Africa. “Samsung is a company that learns from our experiences and we are committed to incorporate the learnings to evolve. Samsung’s heritage and commitment to innovation will continue.
And that brings us back – or rather, forward – to the phone that Samung hopes will make all the monsters of poor public relations go away. The Galaxy S8 was due to be released at about the same time as Mobile World Congress opens in Barcelona at the end of February. Traditionally, that has been both the time and venue for the new Samsung flagship phone for the past few years. This time, Samsung will give the MWC launch a miss.
This is also a tacit admission that Samsung had been moving too fast.
The Note 7 would have been regarded as a technological marvel had everything held together. Waterproof devices despite earphone and charger sockets, iris recognition technology that heralded the next generation of biometric identification, and the fastest-charging battery on a flagship phone, put Samsung on a different planet from its rival-in-chief, Apple.
The latter would later struggle to convince the market that the new iPhone 7 was a signifcant step forward from the previous version. But when the Note 7 phone and image blew up, the wannabe Samsung converts flocked back to Apple.
Fortunately for Samsung, the S7 edge launched in Bacelona last February remained one of the most desirable phones in the world. It had been launched six months before the iPhone 7, but was probably still six months ahead of it in terms of innovation. Its camera remained in a different league, while its curved edge design made it one of the few standout handsets on the market from an aesthetic point of view.
Samsung was this week expected to report record profits for the fourth quarter of 2016, which would cement its reputation as a broad-based company that could innovate profitably acrosss all consumer electronics categories. It supplies many of the microchips and display screens not only for its own appliances and handsets, but also for those of some of its competitors.
This makes it all the more puzzling that Samsung pushed the technology edge of the Note 7 so hard. It suggests that it may have expected Apple to take the iPhone 7’s innovation much further than it did. It also suggests that Samsung may backpedal a little in attempting to cram too much of the future into its next handset.
It says it deployed 700 researchers, working with 200 000 devices and 30 000 batteries, to uncover the flaws in the Note 7. Their job done, that army of professional fault-finders must be swarming all over any new devices being brewed in the lab.
Chances are, the next devices from Samsung will combine serious innovation with serious safety.