The past week's tech news has been dominated by the surprising failure of Samsung's innovative folding phone, the Fold. Intended initially for launch at the end of the week, the phone was plagued by a variety of failures in the hands of early reviewers.
We get it. Products fail. Some products are so obviously stupid, you have to wonder how they ever made it to market. Others, like the Fold, are so innovative that they're not ready for prime time.
But what is it that makes a product go bad? How does something that takes years of careful design from introduction to first delivery, like the 737 MAX aircraft, turn into something that can cost careers -- or lives?
To understand that, you have to ponder the incredible complexity that goes into producing and delivering even the most simple of products.
What is a product?
Most people today know me as a technology columnist. But before I spouted my opinion for a living, I spent years as a product manager and startup founder. In the course of my early career, I launched somewhere between fifty and a hundred tech products, both hardware and software.
That gives me a deep insight into what makes a product, and an odd personality quirk. Every so often, I'll look at a product — like, for example, a roll of ribbon or a bottle of water — and find myself completely blown away by all the steps it took to bring it from concept to my hands as a consumer.
To understand how a product can go wrong, you really need to understand the complexity of what it takes to make a product. So let's look at bottled water. How hard can that be? After all, two thirds of the planet is covered with water. Just take some and put it into a bottle, right?
Well, yes. And no. According to Peter H. Gleick, author of Bottled and Sold, The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, the bottled water market is a $60 billion worldwide market. More than 200 billion bottles are consumed each year.
When you buy bottled water, you're getting the bottle, the cap, a label, some shrink wrap, possibly cardboard from the case of water, and the water itself. Each of those elements has to travel through a supply chain.
Let's over-simplify the bottle's supply chain. It starts with drilling for oil, because oil is used in plastic. We won't get into the entirely huge infrastructure required to drill for oil, but it's there, too. There's the tanker needed to move the oil, the refinery needed to process the oil, the plastics plant that creates the plastic raw material, and the bottle making plant that makes the empty bottles.
The labels and the cartons are both wood-based. That starts with logging and then pulping of the wood product. That then goes to a paper or cardboard plant that turns out the processed sheet goods.
There's truck transportation, often to a separate location for printing, and yet more transportation to bring those materials to the bottling plant.
That, of course, brings us to the water. Water is a big deal, and a lot of communities fight over whether or not a plant has the right to use its water in a product. But once a source of water is deemed acceptable, you need to transport the water via pipes or tankers to a purification plant.
From there, you need to transport the water to a bottling plant, where the bottles previously manufactured and the labels previously printed meet up with the water previously purified. These elements are combined into final packaging, loaded on trucks, and shipped to distributors, who then distribute the products to retailers and, finally, consumers.
I have vastly over-simplified the process of producing bottled water, and still it took me 334 words to do it. Every single step I described above is actually made up of thousands of additional steps. Water purification plants don't, for example, merely pop into existence. They require tremendous infrastructure, design, engineering, fabrication, and testing.
The Boeing 737 MAX
By contrast with the roughly five components in a bottle of water, the older pre-MAX version of the Boeing 737 has 367,000 parts, many of which are themselves assemblies of other parts. Parts are produced by hundreds of suppliers. Plus, of course, there's all the engineering and software that goes into a product as complex as the 737.
Once you apply the level of complexity we discussed for a mere bottle of water to a product that's pretty much literally a million times more complicated, it becomes clear just how herculean an effort it is bringing a major product to market.
The Boeing 737 MAX is the fourth generation of the venerable Boeing 737 passenger liners. Although the airliner was announced to the public as far back as 2011, it didn't begin commercial service until 2017. That was when Malindo Air, a Malaysian aviation company, began commercial flights from Kuala Lumpur Singapore.
According to a Boeing document available online, the company has had 5,012 orders for the aircraft, and shipped 387. Unfortunately, two of those aircraft crashed, killing 346 people.
The problem, which Jason Perlow explains with great clarity, is that the 737 MAX wasn't just another aircraft in Boeing's line. The 737 MAX was a rushed response to competitive pressures from Airbus, who was shipping a new, more fuel efficient variant of the Airbus A320.
Rather than designing an entirely new airframe, Boeing decided to hot rod its well-proven 737 airframe. It added bigger engines, which would have required taller landing gear. Instead of doing so, Boeing relocated the engines and -- here's what apparently got people killed -- compensated for the flight characteristic changes in software.
The software was flawed and people died. Jason argues, and I agree with him, that software can only do so much. This was apparently an aircraft that was incredibly difficult to fly and -- in an analogy to the movie industry adage of "we'll fix it in post" -- the company decided to compensate for the flight challenges with code.
Galaxy Note 7
Speaking of airplanes, you know you have a problem when your smartphone is banned from aircraft worldwide. In 2016, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 seemed like quite a fine phone -- until it started to burst into flame. Apparently some battery cells were defective, causing the problem.
As any reader of ZDNet is no doubt aware, Samsung and Apple are locked in a battle over smartphone dominance. Samsung managed to get the Note 7 to market shortly ahead of Apple's introduction of the iPhone 7.
The smartphone industry has adopted a yearly cadence, where each year new models are released. The hope is that new features will appeal to buyers, convincing them to part with their perfectly good phones from a year or two earlier. This is a brutal push, because we're not just talking about adding new colors (as Apple did this year with the XR), but often new capabilities.
Samsung apparently sourced the cells it assembled into batteries from lower-tier vendors, and they didn't have enough time to properly test performance and reliability.
Obviously, a six ounce smartphone is a considerably different product from a 181,000 pound jet aircraft. But the complexity exists in both. The Note 7, like all modern smartphones, is essentially a pocket-sized supercomputer. It contains parts made from rare and unusual materials, produced with sub-microscopic levels of detail.
The batteries themselves are a tiny power source, self-contained, and intended to drive all that computing power for a day or more. Combining the right chemicals to make batteries that can last, be recharged regularly, dissipate power without too much heat, and not explode, requires a non-trivial level of innovation.
Any single mistake can bring the entire product down.
Compared to the Note 7 disaster, the Galaxy Fold introduction this month was a mere blip. Nothing that we know of exploded or burst into flame. Instead, some phones sent to reviewers in advance of consumer shipments failed because the plastic film on the phones wasn't meant to be peeled off. Other phones sent to reviewers grew a lump and failed or simply just failed.
This is an odd problem. The Fold is innovative, one of the first phones that folds the screen, allowing you to carry what's more like a small tablet in your pocket. But there were odd design decisions, chief among them a protective plastic film that protects the screen and is not designed to be peeled off.
But, as my wife put it, "But we've peeled the plastic off of every other piece of electronics we've bought since the early 2000s. Everyone knows you're supposed to peel the clear stuff off. Peeling the clear stuff off is what gives you that 'ooh, it's mine now' feeling."
When the first few reports came in, Samsung seemed to imply the reviewers were at fault and held the line on immediate shipments. But as the bad press mounted, Samsung relented and postponed the launch. Whether it'll learn that it's impossible to force consumers into a specified behavior pattern (something Microsoft tried with Windows 8 and failed), or just push the product to market, is something we'll see in the months to come.
The thing is, there always needs to be a first in a category that's innovative. When the first iPhone came out, it was far less capable than those we use today. The entire concept of the app store -- arguably one of the most compelling and transformation-driving innovations of the mobile revolution -- didn't exist.
Folding phones will, over time, become a thing. Having more screen in your pocket is valuable. Being able to use a phone as both a pocket device and a tablet has its appeal.
But the early models in that category are going to be limited as well as costly. They will naturally appeal to early adopters and those for whom a specific solution is required and worth the risk. So I don't agree with Jason Cipriani that the Fold needs to be discontinued. Rather, as Larry Dignan argues, "It's too early to really know what is happening with the Galaxy Fold."
What is clear is that the company has to identify the problems found by reviewers, and determine if it can produce a reliable product, or whether the Fold really was too early for the market at this time.
What always amazes me -- and I think about these things a lot -- is just how astonishing it is that we have so many products that do work. Every product has to go through a design, development, and production process to bring it to market, and decisions have to be made at every point.
If any decision is wrong -- say, the assumption that consumers won't peel the protective plastic or will read a caution note -- an entire product can fail.
Now that you understand what goes into making a product, let's look at some of the factors that go into product decisions, and where they can go wrong:
Competitive pressure: No product exists in a vacuum. Competition between products can often be fierce. New features and capabilities from one vendor push other vendors to keep up. Sometimes, desperate to hold onto sales, a vendor may rush a product to market with features that provide parity or even a small lead on the competitor. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it fails.
Technology not ready: Apple could have had a disaster on its hands. No matter how hard it tried, it couldn't get the AirPower charging station to work reliably with the features it announced to the public. But rather than selling it anyway, Apple cancelled the project and took the PR hit. It was a brave move. Most companies will ship anyway, and hope for the best.
New product category: This is the case with the Fold. If you're creating a new category or an early entrant with an innovative product, the first iteration is often not really ready for prime time. Can you say "Google Glass"? Sure. I knew you could. But Glass wasn't a fail, because Google never presented it as a mass-market product. It just wasn't ready to be mainstream.
Design mistakes: I put Windows 8 clearly in this section. Windows 8 was actually excellent under the hood, but was too big a departure from the familiar for its loyal user base. From Windows RT being a Windows that couldn't run most Windows software to the lack of a Start menu (or any UI without knowing gestures), Windows 8 was incredible technology undone by bad design decisions.
Assuming you can force user behavior: Let's go back to the Windows 8 well for this hubristic bad idea. Microsoft thought it could untrain users from the Start menu and drive them to a smartphone-style environment for productivity. Most users were merely confused, enterprises chose not to upgrade, and the product was a failure. Fortunately, Microsoft learned and Windows 10 was smart in all the ways that count.
Letting the schedule rule above all: Sometimes products have been announced and customers have been promised delivery. Sometimes the features in the new products are essential to the demands of those customers. But sometimes, as in the case of Windows Vista, even though enterprise customers had been promised a delivery date, the product was chock full of bugs. Giving into the schedule meant that Vista, until at least Service Pack 1, became a nightmare for all who used it.
Limiting decisions: Sometimes a design may not kill a product, but instead limits adoption. That's clearly the case with many Apple products. The Magic Mouse 2 can't be used and charged at the same time. The touch remote on the Apple TV can barely register user touch (and you can't tell which side to point at the TV in the dark).
Obsession with style over function: One of my favorite examples of this are the glass doors in the new Apple headquarters. Apparently, they're so clear that employees keep walking into them. So, instead of making normal doors, the super-designy doors tend to wind up with post-its stuck to them to prevent head injury.
Belief in own infallibility: If the trash-can style Mac Pro has an epitaph on its tombstone, it will be the statement, "Can't innovate, my ass" made by an Apple exec at its launch. Virtually nothing about the product met the needs of its intended customers. It was priced insanely high. Even today, even obsolete, it's still for sale on the Apple site. Yet no one, especially pro users who need the power of a smartly designed Mac Pro, would consider buying it. What's sad is that the machine just before the trash can was a nearly perfect design.
Feature creep: The classic example of feature creep, where the scope of a project keeps expanding and expanding, was the Denver International Airport. The over-budget airport decided to implement an automated baggage system. It failed so badly that a manual system had to be implemented next to the automated system, which just sat there, unused and unusable.
Design by committee: There's a phrase, "A camel is a horse designed by committee." The idea is that when everyone's input needs to be included, the project becomes overwhelmed, complex, and unmaintainable. The classic example of this was the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which spent 17 years in design and cost $14 billion. When it originally reached soldiers it was terrible. Years of refinement later, it's a decent vehicle. But wow.
We could go on and on, but you get the idea. Add to these poor internal communications or poor communications between internal and external teams, misreading consumer demand, the belief that it'll all be okay, and overall supply and quality issues, as well as many other failure vectors, and you can see how it's possible for a product to go from good to bad quite quickly.
You can also probably see why I'm often so amazed at how good products can be, given the challenges and factors that could have held them back.
Risk factors in the supply chain
Before we wrap this up, I also want to briefly mention risk factors in the supply chain. Any of these could cause vendors to make decisions that are less than ideal, resulting in a product failure.
Here's a quick list:
Base cost: The price of a good could change, causing either a price increase or the need to find a new supplier.
Decline in availability: Whether due to a critical resource drying up or a vendor going out of business (or being acquired by a competitor), lack of component availability can lead to inferior component sourcing or poor, rushed redesigns.
Political climate: Take China. As we've ratcheted up the trade war with China, cost and availability of goods and components have gone up. If we ever got into a hot war with China (or, say, Russia), supply chains would collapse.
Acquisition or shutdown: An easy way for a competitor to cause a vendor great difficulty is to acquire a key supplier.
Lead times: If time-to-delivery suddenly changes, inferior sourcing or product delays could occur.
Production yields: If a supplier changes its supplier, and that results in reduced production yields, it may be necessary to add suppliers, rush out a redesign, or accept inferior goods.
Disaster: When devastating floods hit Thailand back in 2012, hard drive availability worldwide was adversely affected.
Wrapping it all up
We've covered a lot of ground in this deep dive. Hopefully, you've gotten a taste for what it takes to put a product together and what might go wrong. Next time you pick up a product, no matter how simple, take a moment to marvel at the incredible worldwide human effort that went into transforming raw resources into the object you now hold in your hand.
And with that, let me ask this: What products do you love and what products do you consider to have failed or suffered from poor design? Why? Let us all know in the comments below.
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.