Samsung Puts Fold on Hold
After extremely public failures of Galaxy Fold review units, Samsung is postponing the launch. Product schedules have their own inertia, so it’s never an easy decision to stop, but it is a smart call in this case. Of course, it raises questions about Samsung’s product testing process and its PR launch process. Samsung will have to make changes to the Fold – and its warranty – before releasing it to consumers, but if there are no problems with production units, the PR damage should be temporary.
Several reviewers had problems with failing displays on their Galaxy Fold review units, and several other journalists unintentionally damaged their Folds by pulling back a protective film that looked like a removable screen protector. In response, Samsung is recalling all the review units (they were expected to be returned regardless) and is pushing back the ship date on the Fold until it can better seal the hinge and make improvements to the protective layer on the display.
The problems with review units are a PR nightmare, and Samsung’s decision to pause the launch and make corrections is embarrassing, but the decision itself is encouraging. Launch schedules have their own inertia, but Samsung is pausing now to make corrections before the situation gets worse. Samsung already took the hit to its reputation; the delay is an inconvenience, but no consumers received or were even charged for the phones.
While the good news is that Samsung is taking steps now, before products reach consumers, it does call into question Samsung's testing methods. After the Note 7 debacle – which was much worse than this in every way – Samsung put an eight-step quality control process in place for its batteries. The company may need to rethink some of its other product development processes. The company has shown videos of robots opening and closing the display hundreds of thousands of times, and that is necessary to ensure durability. However, robots don't encounter crumbs, dust, pockets, and pocketbooks - all part of the human environment.
The fact that the non-removable screen protector looked removable - and, in fact, could be removed and thus damage the display - is a design flaw Samsung should have addressed earlier as well. (This advice is admittedly self-serving, but Techsponential excels at getting an advance look at products and highlighting areas that are needed for improvement. It is entirely possible that we would not have discovered problems with the hinge or display, but we definitely would have called attention to a screen protector that looked removable but was not.)
Going forward, Samsung needs to find a way to seal the hinge area to ensure that dust and debris do not enter the mechanism and ruin the display from below. This could be challenging, as the display also needs to flex around the hinge when opening. The new screen protector should be thicker – some reviewers with no other issues were showing nicks and dings after just a couple days of light use. The negative PR effectively served as customer education not to remove the protective layer, but that film still needs to be tucked under the outer bezel to ensure that it does not peel up on its own. Samsung also needs to reassure customers that the changes it is making to the Galaxy Fold make it a good investment. Samsung should offer a one-year, money-back guarantee with no questions asked, and a four-year replacement policy on the display with an advance unit or in-home swap. Samsung does not need to build out its own local support organization; one of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold partners, AT&T, already offers in-home setup, and its primary retail partner in the U.S., Best Buy, has Geek Squad.
While Samsung’s troubles may help Huawei’s ascendant brand, the durability issues Galaxy Fold reviewers uncovered should give Huawei pause. Techsponential has gotten hands-on with both the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X, and while the Mate X is a more elegant design in most respects, the pre-production Fold we held felt much better engineered than the prototype Mate X. It is not possible to render real judgements based on samples that were likely hand-built and that we only held for a few minutes, but the Mate X hinge area is far more exposed to the elements than the Galaxy Fold, and debris at the hinge under the display was a cause of at least some of the Galaxy Fold failures. In fact, Huawei would not let us play with the folding mechanism during our session with it, possibly because the Mate X’s display looked like it would tear during folding if not handled gently. The Mate X’s display is also always exposed, so if Huawei cannot engineer its own durable coating, the Mate X is going to be pockmarked with dings from above even if nothing disrupts it from underneath.
No other folding phones have been announced, though Lenovo’s Motorola brand has leaked nearly everything other than the price point on a vertically-folding RAZR phone expected later this year. Motorola would be wise to give up any pretense of secrecy and extensively test the folding RAZR in the wild to ensure durability ahead of launch.
Does This Poison the Market for Folding Phones?
As long as Samsung does something to reinforce the display, better seal the hinge, and adds warranty terms that make the Fold a risk-free purchase, there should be little impact on early Galaxy Fold sales. Let’s face it, the only people buying a $1980 Galaxy Fold are price-is-no-object early adopters. Samsung was always going to have to iterate on the Fold design fairly quickly given the high price point and design compromises a 1.0 product entails.
However, beyond reliability, Samsung got other clear, actionable feedback from early reviewers (Techsponential got hands on with a review unit, but was not able to form impressions on overall usability). One expected problem was largely dismissed: the crease from the folded display looks bad in photos, but was not overly bothersome in actual use. The most common complaint was that the Fold was deemed too thick and too expensive; Samsung likely has thinner designs on the way, and prices should come down as display yields rise. The position of the fingerprint reader and overly intrusive interior camera module (which impacts watching full-screen video) also need improvement.
Most reviewers also complained that the front display is too small for regular use; Samsung can choose to fix this with a larger version in the future, or it can instead focus on improving the software so that separate open and closed use cases are a core part of the value proposition. Samsung did not get a chance to run a full-blown ad campaign for the Galaxy Fold, but Apple and Google are both focusing OS features on reducing smartphone addiction, and Samsung could pitch the Galaxy Fold as the ideal balance between quickly getting things done – on the outside – and diving into the best mobile experience – on the inside.