Samsung Galaxy Fold: A Pragmatic Take

The last ten days sure feel like a whirlwind for the Samsung Galaxy Fold. We went through the excitement and trepidation of the “first look” reviews the morning on the 15th, to a handful of screen issues with early reviewers, ending with Samsung releasing a statement on Monday the 22nd saying the product availability will be delayed so they can run further testing and make adjustments to guarantee the best user experience to customers.

As I watched all of this unfold, I was fascinated by the side conversations that took place on social media from the inevitable Samsung vs. Apple comparisons, to questioning how reviewers do their job, to assuming Samsung just rushed the product to market.

Let’s start with the actual product.

My Unit Was Fine, but Does it Even Matter?

Putting things into context matters. There were a handful of reviewers who reported issues, but the conversation quickly became about “many reviewers” or “most reviewers.” I have not seen an official number from Samsung as to how many units were handed out, but some press mentioned it was under 100 units. The number matters not because it determines the course of action Samsung should have taken, but because it is a good context to have before one can talk about an intentional oversight by Samsung who would have pushed through with the release had the reporters not flagged the issue as some of the comments have done.

Even a single issue should be investigated when you are releasing a new product that is enabling a new category. This on top of the cost of the Galaxy Fold makes it paramount for Samsung to bring to market the best possible solution current technology permits. And this is what Samsung is doing by delaying the release of the Galaxy Fold and retrieving – not recalling – all units that were out on a short-term loan. I would expect that new devices, with an updated design and packaging, will be handed it out before the new release date.

As I mentioned, my unit did not give me any issues, and I used it with the same level of care, or lack thereof, I have for other phones. Following Samsung’s official statement on the now three reported incidents that were not linked to the removal of the screen protective layer, it seems that the phones suffered from damage caused by substances making their way under the protective screen layer. If this is correct it appears that Samsung will mostly address two aspects of the current design:

–    Pushing the protective layer all the way to the bezel of the phone so it could not be removed

–    Seal the current opening at the top and bottom of the hinge so that no substances can get under the screen.

While the product will look slightly different from what I tried over the past week, I do not expect the core of the experience to be different as the Galaxy Fold was a finished and well-thought-out first-generation product.

 What Does the Delay Mean for Samsung?

I have been saying from the very first time the Galaxy Fold concept was introduced that the actual device would not be for everyone. The Galaxy Fold certainly is not for a consumer looking for a smartphone. Of course, you say, who would spend $2,000 for a phone? But looking at this product only in relation to price is not the right approach. If you are looking for a phone, the Galaxy Fold will over-serve you in a way that will make the device seem inadequate as a phone. It’s like buying a Ferrari to drive the kids to school in the morning when you live three blocks away. You will complain about the price, the insurance, the compromise you are making because ultimately it is not the right car for the job.

Some of the reviews and the comments I read looked at the Galaxy Fold like another smartphone when it is not. Yes, all the core functionalities of a phone are there, but the two screens have to be discovered and embraced to figure out how your day to day usage changes. In many ways, my experience reminded me of my first iPad when I was not quite sure how I would use it differently than my iPhone, but I knew I wanted one and I was willing to invest time in finding out what it could do for me.

I do believe this is a short delay and Samsung will likely do a relaunch of the Fold when it ships. From an availability, perspective timing might be impacted by the release of the Galaxy S10 5G in the US next month. Samsung might want to have one device at the time hitting the stores. As far as an impact on sales and financials, I was not expecting the Galaxy Fold to have a major impact on either given units sales will be limited. In that respect, the Galaxy S10 5G will have a much more significant role to play.

What Does the Delay Mean for the Category?

Starting a new category is always hard, and one can’t deny that the past week has not helped convince skeptics that foldable displays could take smartphones to a new level by changing the way we interact with them. Often with technology, first-generation products are not perfect; there are many we can point to over the years. When new tech brings about a new category of products things get more complicated as the appeal might be limited while consumers are figuring out whether or not the product is for them.

Reading those reviews that looked beyond the screen issues as the authors used the Galaxy Fold to discover what they could do differently with it, there was a feeling that the category is promising more than just a larger screen and users were curious to explore that further. Using the Galaxy Fold in public got me more attention than I wanted from people inside and outside tech in different age and gender brackets. This sense of curiosity will remain past this week, but I believe Samsung will have to tell a better story around both the device and the technology. Technology enables a category, but storytelling brings it to life. I truly believe this was missing from Samsung’s launch. More focus should have been put on how foldable screens are by nature less resilient than what we have grown accustomed to, but that is not a compromise; it is just a necessary step to move forward.

What Does the Conversation Say About Consumers and Tech?

As news hit the wires about the Galaxy Fold issues and the availability delay there were a few themes that transpired from the conversation on social media.

It is still very much a Samsung vs. iPhone world. Much of the conversation was dominated by iPhone users who assumed the Galaxy Fold was rushed to market and it is not a product anyone needs. Such rushed judgment ignores how many years Samsung has been developing display technology including flexible displays. I remember seeing my first prototype in Seoul over ten years ago. As far as consumers’ wants and needs I am sure many will remember one of Steve Jobs’ favorite quotes from Henry Ford: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me:  a faster horse” and Jobs added “ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” On this very point is where storytelling comes in and where Apple is still way better than Samsung.

There is no more patience, or people forgot how we got to the latest version of whatever smartphone model they might be using. Saying Samsung should have waited for a glass solution for its display is like saying we should forget about Tesla Autopilot till we get to fully autonomous cars in ten years or so.

People seem to see the worse in tech with some even questioning the reviewers themselves and their own desire for new devices. It was interesting how many jumped to the conclusion that Samsung was aware of the design issue. Considering the improved QA process Samsung set in place after the Note 7 incident, it is unrealistic to think the company would jeopardize its reputation and a market growth opportunity by rushing a product to market. A more plausible theory could be that the testing process, as rigorous as it might have been, did not consider real-life scenarios because of the very nature of a lab environment. Not that different from a new keyboard design that is impacted by substances entering the mechanism.

Finally, there is an almost morbid fascination with failure over success, and I am pretty sure this is just the very nature of social media.

I look forward to the Galaxy Fold starting to ship and for other brands like Huawei, Motorola, and TCL  to bring their take on this category reimagining our relationship with our most loved device.