In April, Samsung was taking orders for the $2,000 device and stores were just days away from displaying it on shelves when product reviewers who had received the units for testing started to report problems. Some reported that the hinges had failed. Others said they had accidentally peeled a protective layer off the screen, causing the device to fail catastrophically. Samsung responded by delaying the launch indefinitely to refine the design of the device.
The Fold represented Samsung’s effort to win the race to the cutting edge of the smartphone market by beating rivals Apple and Huawei to a unique new product: a screen that folds in half, giving the customers a small tablet computer that doubles as a regular-sized smartphone.
In some ways, the Fold’s launch was all about Samsung’s image. Analysts said they expected the company to sell few of the devices but that the positive press for being first to market with a folding screen would help elevate all of its products in the minds of consumers. Instead, the good press became a black eye.
Still, even with the delayed launch, Samsung may beat its competitors to market. A competing folding smartphone from the embattled Chinese technology giant Huawei also isn’t expected to come out until September. Huawei is also facing an existential threat from the United States. The Commerce Department has barred U.S. companies from selling components to Huawei on national security grounds, threatening its ability to produce products.
If Samsung is able to bounce back from the Galaxy Fold controversy, it won’t be the first time the company has recovered from a serious public relations debacle. In 2016, after Samsung launched the Note 7, some of the oversized smartphones began exploding or catching fire. Some replacement units that the company shipped to customers had the same problem, and Samsung faced a government recall because of the faulty batteries. Following weeks of delays and countless news stories, the company pulled the phone from the market.
When problems with the Galaxy Fold review units started surfacing, the company at first tried to deflect the criticism, saying it was confined to a “limited number” of devices. It also blamed reviewers for thinking they should remove the protective film, which some people thought was similar to the disposable pieces of plastic that come on some new screens. “Removing the protective layer or adding adhesives to the main display may cause damage,” the company said in a statement at the time.
But analysts and former Samsung employees said the company probably knew about reliability issues with the devices long before they were sent to reviewers. Samsung meticulously tests its electronics, putting them through a battery of tests in a laboratory in Korea, among other places, said former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had signed nondisclosure agreements.
At the time, Samsung said it began investigating as soon as it heard reports of problems.
But “early adopters” may still be willing and excited to purchase the revamped device, analysts say.
In the news release Wednesday, Samsung said the new Fold has a strengthened hinge and protective caps. Metal layers have been added underneath the flexible display to reinforce it, and the opening around the hinge has been shrunken, evidently to keep debris from getting inside and damaging the device. “All of us at Samsung appreciate the support and patience we’ve received from Galaxy fans all over the world,” Samsung wrote in the news release.
And Samsung’s biggest smartphone competitors, Huawei and Apple, are facing difficulties of their own. Huawei’s smartphone unit has been put in jeopardy because of the company’s trouble with the U.S. Commerce Department. And Apple, Samsung’s biggest competitor in the high-end U.S. smartphone market, lost the supplier it had planned to use for 5G modems when Intel announced it was giving up on making the equipment it had planned to sell to Apple. That may have delayed Apple’s entrance into 5G, giving Samsung an opportunity to benefit.
Huawei’s phone, because of trade restrictions, will probably be difficult to get inside the United States.