Probably one of the worst things that can happen to a product is for it to get terrible early reviews. It sets the tone for the product that's hard to shake off, and undermines all the buzz and hype generated at the unveiling.
This is what happened to Samsung and its $2,000 Galaxy Fold smartphone. Yeah, it looked great at the keynote event, with the excitement such that I think some people watching were already throwing money at the computer screens in order to get their hands on one. But when the initial reviews started to land showing screen corruption and broken displays, things predictably took a rapid turn to the negative.
Now that Samsung has officially pulled the plug on the worldwide launch as it looks into "further improvements," it raises questions as to what went wrong, both with the design and at Samsung.
So what went wrong?
Samsung's statement postponing the launch offers up some hints [emphasis added].
Initial findings from the inspection of reported issues on the display showed that they could be associated with impact on the top and bottom exposed areas of the hinge. There was also an instance where substances found inside the device affected the display performance.
We will take measures to strengthen the display protection. We will also enhance the guidance on care and use of the display including the protective layer so that our customers get the most out of their Galaxy Fold.
There's a lot going on here.
First, it seems that Samsung is suggesting that the hinge is a weak point, and that it is allowing debris to enter the device, and that ingress of debris can result in rapid screen damage (remember, the early reviewers didn't have their hands on the Galaxy Fold units for long before problems showed up).
It also seems that Samsung is admitting that having a strengthening layer on the display that looks like a removable screen protector might not be a good idea, and that at the very least it needs to communicate to customers that this is not removable.
OK, these are the technical issues. But let's not forget that Samsung has presumably been testing the Galaxy Fold for, well, some time now. It's hard to believe that the issue of the hinge being susceptible to damage from things getting into it, and the screen's protective layer looking like something that's removable didn't come up during this period.
At this point, I've got a lot of questions.
- Was Samsung aware of these issues and decided to go ahead with the launch thinking it could solve the problem down the line?
- Was testing so poor and limited that serious design issues that slashed the durability of the device down to a few hours were missed?
- Did Samsung make changes to the design at a late stage and not get time to test it properly?
Whatever the reason, none of it looks good for Samsung. The company either tried to rush a product that it knew was defective out to market, hoping to fix the problem down the line, or it rushed a product that wasn't properly tested out to market with serious design flaws that weren't picked up on until it fell into the hands of reviewers.
An iFixit blog post by Kevin Purdy had this to say:
"Why make a device with a fragile OLED layer, so little tolerance between screen and spine, and so many ways for dirt and moisture, to get in? Hubris? Testing with robots instead of real humans, with pockets and fingers and different ways of opening and closing things? These are questions that may go unanswered, even if we learn the cause of the defects."
The iFixit teardown also highlights that the Galaxy Fold has a number of potential entry points for debris, from the bezel to a 7mm gap at the hinge where all sorts of chunks can get into the phone. As smartphones have essentially become slabs of glass, metal and plastic built with gaskets and seals to keep the elements out, the Galaxy Fold represents an unusual design.
It also raises the question of how Samsung expects to solve this issue. Telling users to not peel off the protective layer and to not get dirt into the hinge is quick and simple, but it's hardly a fix. Redesigning the Galaxy Fold so it's resistant to these issues is a much bigger task, and could take months.
I guess we'll now get to find out whether Samsung wants to ship the Galaxy Fold as fast as possible or is committed to fixing the underlying issues.
At this stage, it looks like the answer to the question "what went wrong with the Galaxy Fold?" is that Samsung dropped the ball in spectacular fashion and was left scrabbling for a response when things went bad.
As much as the tech media condemned Apple for announcing and then pulling the plug on its AirPower wireless charger, this is far better than releasing a defective product into the market.
Samsung could learn a thing or two from Apple here.
What do you think went wrong? Let me know!
[Updated with information from teardown specialists at iFixit.]