Samsung announced Monday that it would delay the release of its $2,000 flagship Galaxy Fold phone after reports of product defects affecting the screen, which folds like a taco, a major setback for what was the most highly anticipated new mobile device in years.
The phone was due to arrive in stores Friday. But last week, product reviewers who received the phones for testing reported problems such as broken hinges that caused the screen to bulge. Others peeled off a layer of plastic that resembles a screen protector, but which in fact was crucial to the folding screen. Samsung said it would make modifications to its screen design and announce a new release date “in the coming weeks.”
The company said its initial inspection of the damaged phones showed the problems could have been caused by impact to the hinges. Some reviewers also reported screen quality issues. Samsung said it found a substance in a device that caused screen issues, but it did not disclose what the substance was.
The Galaxy Fold was supposed to be Samsung’s best bet to reignite interest in the stagnant smartphone market, putting it possibly years ahead of Apple. Samsung is in a race with Chinese phone maker Huawei, the world’s largest phone maker by volume, to release the first folding phone. Huawei’s Mate X folding phone is slated to a summer release.
It’s the latest high-profile quality problem with Samsung phones. Within weeks of the summer 2016 launch of its Note 7, some phones began exploding or catching fire. The company sent out replacement units, which also started exploding, and it was hit with a government recall because of unsafe batteries. After many weeks of delays and damage to its reputation, Samsung officially pulled the phone from the market.
Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, said the first thing he thought of when he started reading reports of the Galaxy Fold issues, was the exploding Note 7 phones a few years ago. “The good news is, you aren’t dealing with live customers here and it’s not a safety issue,” he said, “but it’s still a black eye.”
Last week, the company shrugged off the problems with the Galaxy Fold review units, saying they affected a “limited number” of phones. It said it was investigating the matter. It also sought to put blame on the removal of the protective film. “Removing the protective layer or adding adhesives to the main display may cause damage,” the company said in the statement.
Steven Osinski, a marketing professor at San Diego State University, said Samsung may have missed an opportunity to address the problem when it initially cropped up Wednesday. “It would have been better to acknowledge it immediately,” he said. Being upfront with consumers, he said, could have reduced the amount of damage to the brand.
Samsung spokeswoman Robin Schultz said the company began investigating as soon as it started retrieving broken units from product reviewers. She declined to comment on when Samsung first learned about the problems.
Samsung was planning to sell the phones in its own stores as well as through AT&T and T-Mobile. It began taking pre-orders last week, about 10 days before they were due in stores. But after reports of problems with the phones began to surface on Twitter and online tech news publications, the pre-orders abruptly stopped. Schultz said Samsung’s website sold out of pre-orders but declined to say whether it had a predetermined number of phones it would sell before shutting down pre-orders.
Later that day, at AT&T stores, sales representatives told customers that they were no longer taking orders for the phones because of high demand, essentially saying the phones were sold out. Store managers said they expected shipments of the phones to arrive this week and they’d be put on display Thursday night. AT&T and T-Mobile declined to comment.
Moorhead, who used to work in consumer electronics, said Samsung likely would have known about the screen issues with the Fold, but probably believed it had found a fix or a workaround. Sometimes manufacturing fixes work in small batches, but then fail in mass production, he said. Samsung declined to comment.
The problems could range from something mechanical in the design of the product that caused the hinges to break, to a worst-case scenario: Something in the screen’s chemistry that causes it to fail with repeated use.
Either way, he said, consumers will probably forget about this problem. “People who would be willing to lay down a couple of grand for products like this are many times risk takers in the first place,” he said. “They’re willing to go out on a limb.”
Fred Bould, an industrial designer who has helped draw up the plans for devices such as GoPro cameras and the Nest thermostat, said problems like Samsung’s often happen when companies push engineers to go beyond what’s possible. “You can have an emperor’s new clothes situation. People are afraid to speak up.” he said.
Bould said Samsung may have been working on a fix to the problems already, before the devices were sent to product reviewers. Failures like this one are rare, he said. “The rollout of a product like a mobile phone is an enormously expensive undertaking. It’s not something you do lightly,” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”