Galaxy Note 7: The Death of a Smartphone

It’s hard to imagine a much worse scenario.

The world’s leading smartphone company debuts a new device that initially is touted as one of the best smartphones ever made. Glowing reviews quickly follow and the company’s prospects for a strong fall and holiday season, and the opportunity for regaining some lost market share, seem nearly assured.

But then a small number of the phones start to overheat and catch fire. The company tries to react quickly and decisively to the concern and issues a recall of several million already shipped devices. It’s a somewhat risky and certainly expensive move, but the company initially receives praise for trying to tackle a challenging problem in a positive way.

Customers are reassured that the problem seems to lie not in the phone itself, but in a battery provided by one of the company’s third-party battery suppliers (ironically, most believe the culprit to be Samsung SDI—a sister company of Samsung Electronics).

And then, the unthinkable. Replacement phones start to show the same problems and the company is forced to stop the production and sale of the device, encourage its telco and retail partners to stop selling it, and tell all its existing customers to stop using it. Just to add insult to injury, the US Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) also sends out notes to consumers encouraging them to stop using the device, while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and major airlines around the world reinforce the message they’ve been saying for the last several weeks on virtually every airplane flight in the world: don’t use, charge or even turn on your Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

It’s probably the most negative publicity a tech product has ever seen. The long-term impact on the Samsung brand is still to be determined, but anyone who’s looked at the situation at all knows it can’t be good. At this point, it appears that the Note 7 will likely end up being removed from the market, costing Samsung billions of dollars, and there’s even been some concern expressed about Samsung’s ability to save/sustain the Note sub-brand.

Part of the issue isn’t just the product itself—although that’s certainly bad enough—but the manner in which the company is now handling it. Reaction has quickly moved from praise for Samsung’s initial quick efforts to address the issue, to disbelief that they could let a second round of faulty products that are this dangerous get out the door.

On top of that, there are many unanswered questions that need to be addressed. From a practical perspective, what is the cause of the problems if it isn’t the battery cell (the charging circuits?) and what other phones might face the same dangerous issues? Why did Samsung rush out the replacement units without actually figuring out what the real cause was? What kind of testing did they do (or not) to be sure the replacements were safe?

Beyond these short-term issues, there are also likely to be some bigger questions that could have a longer-term impact on the tech market. First, what types of procedures are in place to prevent this? What governmental or industry associations, if any, can take responsibility for this (besides Samsung)? Will products need to go through longer/more thorough testing procedures before they’re allowed on the market? Will product reviewers need to start doing safety tests before they can really make pronouncements on the quality/value of a product? How can vendors and their suppliers work to avoid these issues and what mechanisms do they have in place should it happen again to another product?

Some might argue that these questions are an over-reaction to a single product fault from a single vendor. And, to be fair to Samsung, there have certainly been reported cases of other fire and safety-related issues with electronics products from other vendors, including Apple, over the last few years.[pullquote]Our collective dependence on battery-driven devices is only growing, so it may be time to take a harder, more detailed look at safety-related testing and requirements.[/pullquote]

But when people’s lives and health are at stake—as they clearly have been with some of the reported Galaxy Note 7-related problems—it’s not unreasonable to question whether existing policies and procedures are sufficient. Our collective dependence on battery-driven devices is only growing, so it may be time to take a harder, more detailed look at safety-related testing and requirements.

Given the breakneck pace and highly competitive environment for battery-powered devices, there will likely be industry pushback against prolonged or more expensive testing. As the Galaxy Note 7 situation clearly illustrates, however, speed doesn’t always work when it comes to safety.

Finally, the tech industry needs to take a serious look at these issues themselves, and figure out potential methods of self-policing. If they don’t, and we start hearing a lot more stories about other devices exploding, catching on fire or causing bodily harm, you can be assured that some politician or governmental agency will use the collective news to start imposing much more challenging requirements.

As the old saying goes, better safe, than sorry.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

37 thoughts on “Galaxy Note 7: The Death of a Smartphone”

  1. More broadly, the fact that a very visible product-, business-, finances-killing (and potentially people- and brand-) flaw like this one was let through makes one wonder about flaws that are none of the above. Minor flaws like antenna or touchscreen, and, more importantly, security flaws.

    Safety, and security, is a process not a state. At a time when IT wants to drive our cars, handle our data, and secure our homes/finances/health… nice reminder those processes are not in place, and probably never will be unless regulated.

  2. It’s more than just the phone. Considering that some Samsung washing machines are also subject to exploding, it looks like there’s something seriously wrong with Samsung’s corporate culture and its attitude towards safety and product testing.

    The very first responsibility of any company that manufactures stuff is to make sure that their products are safe. If Samsung is not able to ensure even that, why should I trust anything made by them to work properly?

    1. Batteries are essentially slowed-down bombs; the job of both is to release energy. Numerous OEMs have had instances of exploding phones, including Apple: more here http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/13/technology/samsung-lithium-batteries/ (hint: Boeing, HP, Sony, Apple).

      I’m guessing (actually, I’m seeing a right now) there’ll be a fair bit of trolling from iFans trying to generalize from Samsung Galaxy Note to Samsung Galaxy to Samsung to Android. That’s a bit fair because it’s certainly a process failure as much as a part failure; but a bit unfair since not so much has been made of other previous and current battery issues. As long as we use li-ion, and pursue thinness over safety, there’ll be a few cases a year.

      At least Samsung didn’t tell their customers they were holding it wrong ^^

      1. “As long as we use li-ion, and pursue thinness over safety, there’ll be a few cases a year.”

        Was it just a few, or possibly more? Is this a battery issue or engineering issue using that battery? Are others having the same QC issues with that battery?

        Thoughts?

          1. The article you linked to explains that the normal failure rate is quite low and that a manufacturing error is the likely cause of Samsung’s battery problem, which may be a hundred times higher than the normal failure rate, maybe even higher. Yes, other companies, including Apple, have had battery problems but it would seem Samsung’s incredibly high failure rate is a key reason people are paying more attention. I suspect the core problem is Samsung pushing too hard too fast trying to outdo competitors. Apple is often criticized for moving too slowly, perhaps we’re seeing a piece of the puzzle here, revealing why Apple iterates gradually and steadily.

          2. Just trying to articulate the truth. I have an inkling that Android OEMs (or any less integrated player) is going to have to push way too hard in order to keep up with Apple. Integration naturally creates efficiencies. I think that’s at least part of the reason Google is now experimenting with more integration. It is the future after all. The good news for you is that at a certain point abstraction and integration becomes quite modular (you won’t notice the limits on your freedom and there won’t be many anyway, which is similar to much of your daily life now, it’s just that computing tech hasn’t reached that point yet).

          3. The natural or demonstrated path of technology in the electronics industry since its inception has always been towards densely integrated componentry. Vacuum tube, transistor, IC, SoC, etc. Someday our phones will be monolithic bricks that integrate everything and would be the environmentalists’ nightmare. And I suspect klahanas’ too. 🙂
            Fear not, that’s probably just the asymptote which Zeno assures us we will never reach.

          4. Yes, and I think as we integrate and abstract we get to a point where things become modular again, or modular enough. We’re just dealing with ‘bigger pieces’, so to speak. It is not always an advantage to be able to get inside everything at every level.

      2. “Batteries are essentially slowed-down bombs;”

        So. What. Who. Cares.

        To repeat myself, it is the first and most important job of any company to ensure that their products are safe. Li-ion batteries do not normally explode. Products using Li-ion do not normally get recalled due to battery explosions. Product recalls do not usually have the replacement products suffer the same flaws as the recalled products. Samsung failed to do their job properly. Then they failed again when trying to rectify the issue.

        The washing machine issue shows that this is not isolated, it is a pattern. Samsung have demonstrated that they do not care enough about safety and that they are incompetent to ensure safety when something goes wrong. That is more than enough reason for people to avoid buying *any* of their products.

        1. Indeed, iPhones were exploding in 2009, and nobody cared much.

          Indeed, companies will lower costs and skimp on QA as much as they can get away with. When they’re unlucky, it’s batteries, when they’re lucky it’s antennagate and touch disease. The symptoms are worse, but the illness is the same.

      3. You’re employing a level of innumeracy that would make a Trump campaign strategist proud. Unfortunately readers here are fairly good at understanding the difference between one in ten million and 35 in 2.5 million.

          1. The one in ten million is directly from the article *you* linked to and referred to a second time saying “info in the cnn article I linked”. aardman is simply repeating the information *you* provided.

            Other OEMs, including Apple, have had battery issues, and some, including Apple, have not been directly just the battery but other factors at play as well. Still, the issue here is even the Apple problem you’re citing was perhaps five times the normal failure rate. Samsung’s battery issue is quite possibly well over a hundred times the normal failure rate (it might be two hundred times the normal failure rate). We cannot equate the two problems, the difference is orders of magnitude. Actually, Android Central reports 100 cases of battery fires in the US alone. That puts the failure rate off the charts.

            As for Apple’s response being much worse, that’s nonsense. Samsung has made an incredible mess of this problem and damaged their brand quite a lot with how they responded to this issue.

      4. A battery issue is a bit in a category of its own, because it affects the safety of the user. When the safety of the user is compromised, it can lead to a very expensive product liability claim. Thus there is probably a media attention about this issue. You are absolutely right, li-ion batteries are inflammable and It is not thé first time a technology company runs into this problem. Samsung though could not find the root cause quickly enough, which is weird considering how long they have been in this business.

    2. Risk management I believe is the mantra. Make your stuff look like the real thing, then deal with any consequences. Scamsung is not alone in this (GM, the air bag people, the Pinto, Unsafe at Any Speed, etc), but they seem to be the “pinnacle” of this art. Stealing designs and technology, then leaving out as much as they think they can get away with, leaving the companies who developed the technology bankrupt. Just like the Chinese knock off artists, only much bigger and (also?) state sanctioned.
      I know that Samsung memory products, CPUs and OEM screens seem to be adequate, but that’s probably a consequence of necessity if they intend to remain a major OEM supplier. Consumer beware.

  3. Loving the headline paroding “Death of a salesman”. The issue I see is more PR than a technical. Samsung changed their story from “a minute flaw” during a production run to “unknown” when the replacement devices Samsung shipped showed the same defect. The fact that the replacement devices had the same issue is really bizarre.
    Samsung Chairman famous for burning 150,000 phones showing defect 21 years ago recently retired and they have a new chief.

  4. Samsung needs to push out a software update that outright bricks the phone or drops the battery storage capacity to 10% of a normal charge thus compelling everyone to get rid of the Note 7. Otherwise some people will hold on to them and the combustion stories will continue to make headlines for weeks and months to come.

  5. The problem with a reactive design process, where you watch for or predict what new thing the competitor comes up with and then try to beat it with a hurriedly designed model, is that your competitor has spent years developing features that you are trying match in a much shorter product development timeframe. In some cases, less than a year.

    Apple is often accused of being late to the market with features that Android phones offered a couple of years ago. This is why they are wiling to live with the accusation of ‘copycat’.

  6. So Samsung has finally thrown in the towel and just killed the Note 7 outright. I wonder if they were finally able to figure out what caused their combustion conundrum. God forbid they crank out a new phone without first finding out the root of the problem.

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