Innovation is a differentiator in the electronics industry, but product quality is what counts.
The connected society might not actually need a folding smartphone, but Samsung is reportedly close to drawing a line under the Galaxy Fold’s highlighted quality problems.
According to a Samsung press release, the Galaxy Fold will be available for purchase in September 2019. The mobile device – which will retail for $1,980 – was due to be launched in April, and was widely expected to showcase the potential for folding hardware. However, a number of review units sent to tech journalists developed significant problems from day one, with the company forced to delay the public launch while it investigated the identified issues.
Tech reviewers – never the most forgiving when their free, shiny new toy doesn’t work – were quick to point out that the hardware had been shipped with several design flaws. Headlines like “A Broken Dream” and “A Bold Bet That Is Not Ready” then essentially lumped the Galaxy Fold into a level of tech hell inhabited by Google Glass, Juicero and Snapchat Spectacles.
These flaws included a protective layer for the display screen that Samsung neglected to mention to reviewers was an integral part of the device and a hinge area – that makes Galaxy Fold, well, foldable, was prone to letting small pieces of debris in. The upshot of the latter fault basically meant that the screen broke when you tried to use it.
The highlighted faults – ones that should have been fixed or spotted long before the units left the shop floor – have now been corrected, Samsung said. As a result, the Galaxy Fold should be available just in time for the all-important holiday season.
The protective layer of the flexible display has, for instance, been extended and the company has made it apparent to anyone who owns one that this is part of the phone’s structure. The hinges have been upgraded to reduce the chance of external particles making their way into the device, and the display itself has been reinforced with metal layers.
"At Samsung, we’ve always focused on pioneering the next generation of mobile innovation: new products and technologies that push the entire industry forward and help users do what they can’t,” said Samsung. “Earlier this year, we announced Galaxy Fold—Samsung’s first foldable device, and the beginning of an entirely new mobile category. Since then, we’ve made improvements to Galaxy Fold to ensure consumers have the best possible experience. Samsung has taken the time to fully evaluate the product design, make necessary improvements and run rigorous tests to validate the changes we made."
Speed to market is a quality pain point
This is obviously good news for the people who pre-ordered the device, existing Samsung device owners and the carriers that signed exclusive deals with Samsung to carry the phone. The caveat is that the pre-orders have already been cancelled (by both Samsung and mobile carriers), brand reputation has been tarnished, and the September launch date is still to be announced.
The one element that is not up for discussion is that the decision to delay the official launch until September is a clear sign that the company rushed a product into a consumer market without making sure that it not only worked, but also provided the end user with the expected experience.
So, how did a global electronics company drop the ball so badly in terms of both speed to market and quality management? And, providing that the hardware problems have been fixed, how can Samsung (again) regain consumer trust?
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the answer to both these questions is still very much up for debate. But let’s try and unpack just some of the quality pain points that could have been avoided.
Samsung originally introduced the Galaxy Fold at a developer’s conference in November 2018, and made a big deal about how the device would “reimagine the smartphone, by changing the way you interact, communicate and experience everyday life.” Subsequent appearances at tech industry events merely confirmed the company's commitment to the product.
As you might expect, there was considerable interest in the idea of a foldable smartphone from day one. Samsung was certainly not the only player in the space, with Chinese OEM Huawei also revealing its intentions to release a foldable mobile device before the end of 2019.
As a result of both consumer interest and potential competition, the company had allocated considerable resources – Samsung reportedly devotes 15 percent of overall spending to product R&D - to a piece of hardware that could (in theory) breathe new life into a stale and stagnant consumer-facing market.
The key thing to remember is that the Fold wasn’t some sort of prototype version that Samsung was testing for possible market share. Review units had not only been sent to journalists, but a release date had been set and marketing campaigns were already in process. Which muddies the quality waters even further.
Market saturation fuels product innovation
The global smartphone market is known for its constant introduction of new smartphones, and OEMs maintain a regular schedule of releases and upgrades. However, smartphone sales have reached a plateau in recent years, as both market saturation and customer reluctance to buy a new phone every year increases.
With that in mind, smartphone manufacturers are always keen to bring a product to market that will re-ignite consumer interest, and Samsung’s foldable device certainly ticked a number of innovation boxes.
However, once the devices were shipped to carefully selected media outlets, it became crystal clear that there were problems directly related to the design of the hardware itself.
The Verge, for example, described the Fold as an intriguing but incredibly delicate device, and one that would struggle to justify its retail price. Reviewers also complained that the screen broke after less than 48 hours of use and that debris was getting into the hinges that allowed the user to turn a 4.6-inch phone screen into a 7.3-inch tablet – a useful feature in terms of productivity, note-taking and mobile gaming.
And, just like that, Samsung was (once again) under the product quality spotlight.
Quality matters in a competitive market
To be fair to Samsung, its executive team has since admitted that the Fold was not ready. Under pressure to fend off competition from Huawei – who are now the second biggest smartphone vendor in the world behind Samsung – the company rushed the launch without the rigorous testing that new devices need.
“I do admit I missed something on the foldable phone, but we are in the process of recovery,” said Samsung Electronics CEO D J Koh, in a recent media briefing with reporters. “At the moment, more than 2,000 devices are being tested right now in all aspects. We defined all the issues. Some issues we didn’t even think about, but thanks to our reviewers, mass volume testing is ongoing.”
That last statement is extremely revealing in terms of quality management.
Conformance testing has long been part of the electronics industry, and Samsung’s quality team would have been more than aware that a high-profile launch would attract an increased amount of both media and consumer interest. The fact that the Fold essentially broke before it even got into consumer hands should not disguise the fact that anybody who bought one would have expected a $2,000 piece of tech to undergo testing before release.
After all, the Galaxy Fold was already a long way past the prototype phase of the product lifecycle. A QMS solution that allows for advanced workflow and business process management should have found the flaws in the hardware before it reached the potential launch date. So, Samsung either knew that it was rushing a product out before the hardware was ready, or the quality management team were culpable of ticking boxes to move the device into the sales phase.
One important element to remember is that Samsung is not some start-up or a Kickstarter project that only moves into gear when enough people show faith in a product. Samsung is a global brand, with billions of dollars in resources and a history of successful products. Nobody is denying that the Fold was innovative, but quality management processes were either missed or (more likely) put to one side to ensure that the stated date for delivery was met.
Samsung has been here before
However, the publicly expressed quality concerns for Samsung were not just related to the fact that the Fold was obviously not ready for the consumer market, but that this was not the first time that the company had attempted to release a state-of-the-art (and expensive) smartphone with significant quality issues.
Back in 2016, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 was launched, recalled and discontinued in the space of two months, thanks to the propensity of the smartphone’s battery connections to catch fire without warning. If there is a silver lining to the Galaxy Fold’s quality misfire, it is that Samsung did not have to issue the same humble apology to consumers that the company was forced to release after it refused to initially acknowledge that there was a quality issue at all with the Note 7.
In an ironic twist, Samsung’s struggles with the Galaxy Fold has seemingly put the brakes on Huawei’s ambitions to enter the non-existent folding smartphone market.
SlashGear reported that the company has delayed the release of its Mate X device due to a stated need for the hardware to meet internal quality requirements, with the president of Huawei’s mobile phone division saying that the device will only be released when it is ready. And if the Mate X doesn’t meet the high quality standards of Huawei’s other products, then the product will be scrapped.
“We have invested heavily in Mate X,” said Huawei’s He Gang. “As for when the Samsung [device] is released, it is not a key point for us to consider. The key point we consider is to hope that consumers can get this product when they get it. When the customer gets high-quality products, the consumer experience is very good, and meets consumer expectations for the Huawei brand."
Quality matters in the electronics industry
The electronics industry is constantly battling against quality pain points that appear – to the average person – to be linked to a long-standing ideal that tech-savvy consumers will buy almost anything that has a recognizable brand on it.
The majority of OEMs, however, have an ongoing problem. Almost every new product is launched with a promise that it will change our connected lives forever. That is a very lofty goal and, more often than not, the product itself fails to match the hype. What decision makers need to realize is that quality matters more to consumers than just a need to own a revolutionary device. Not every piece of hardware can change the world, and that’s OK.
Time will tell if Samsung’s Galaxy Fold experience will make its QMS team pay more attention to product quality in the future, but at least it has a second chance to launch a piece of hardware that could be genuinely revolutionary. The first version never made it to actual customers, so the costs of an embarrassing recall have been avoided. On the flip side, the second version is likely to come under increased scrutiny from both the tech sector and end users.
Ultimately, we might not need the foldable smartphone, but at least we know that it might be part of the tech landscape at some point. And, provided that the quality of the device aligns with our expectations, then it might be the smartphone that takes mobile hardware to the next level.
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