Questions and learnings from the cancellation of Samsung Galaxy Note 7

Last week, Samsung discontinued its much loved Galaxy Note 7. Here we discuss the events leading up to that decision, and some of the learnings that have resulted.

About two months ago, and to much pomp and fanfare, Korean smartphone manufacturer, Samsung, released the highly anticipated Galaxy Note 7. The Galaxy Note line is a phablet – cross between, and supposedly providing the best of, a smartphone and a tablet computer. Accordingly, the device had a loyal followers and users were excited about the new upgrades made to the Note 7.

However, less than a month after its release, there were report of Note 7 devices overheating, catching on fire and even exploding. In response, Samsung indicated that there might be a battery fault, and instituted a programme, where all Note 7s could be exchanged for new, and fault-free ones. However, within days of the programme, there were new reports that the replacement phones were still defective. Hence, on 11 October, Samsung announced that it was discontinuing the Note 7 and existing owners could replace that device for another Samsung smartphone.

To varying degrees, the mobile/cellular phone, along with the wider personal electronic devices, industry appear to be reeling from the spectacular high and downfall of the Galaxy Note 7. Below, we discuss a few nagging questions triggered by this recent incident.

What is the problem with the Note 7?

Although the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has become the poster child for flammable smartphones, the problem is endemic to most phones that use lithium ion battery packs to power them.  These batteries have several benefits: lightweight, high energy density, and low self-discharge, to name a few. However, the batteries have a liquid core, which is highly flammable, and if compromised, for example through a short circuit, can cause a battery to explode.

This character flaw of lithium ion battery packs is well known and documented in the electronics industry. Statistically, the instances of exploding batteries have been quite low, and the benefits of using lithium ion technology continues to outweigh the cons.

Was Samsung premature in cancelling the Galaxy Note 7?

As indicated earlier, and in response to the first reports of exploding Note 7s, Samsung attributed the problem to defective battery packs and instituted measures to recall and replace those devices. However, when the problem persisted even with the replacement phones, causing mobile/cellular carriers, especially in the US, to suspend sale of the phones, and airlines to ban their use during flights, Samsung decided – in the interest of customer safety – to stop sale of the Galaxy Note 7 and permanently discontinue its production.

On the face of it, it could be argued that cancelling the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was a drastic move, and maybe the line could have been salvaged. The Galaxy Note has been a flagship device for Samsung. The Note 7 was recently released to much excitement and demand, and would be a considerable loss to firm. However, the unresolved battery problems had undoubtedly tainted the Galaxy Note brand, from which it may be difficult to recover if the bad and dangerous customer experiences were allowed to continue.

Further, while the source of the problem in the Note 7 was reportedly the lithium ion battery pack, based on how the phone was designed and built, there did not appear to be an easy fix. For example, the battery pack could not be easily replaced by a user, as is the case with other Samsung phones. With those and other considerations in mind, and to limit harm to the larger Samsung brand, whilst being seen to be proactive and customer-centric, it may indeed have been prudent for the firm to cut its losses with the Note 7 and go back to the drawing board.

Are devices being released too quickly?

In the seemingly relentless pursuit of the new and innovative, and to continually drive sales, release cycles for personal electronic devices, especially for smartphones, have gotten considerably shorter to around a year. However, is that sufficient time to adequately test those devices and ensure that they operate properly and safely under a broad range of conditions? That of course is one of the glaring questions that the Note 7 is challenging the entire industry to consider.

Of course, there are no easy answers. There are numerous countervailing issues that device manufacturers must weigh, and more so when a situation goes very wrong. For example, in addition to the embarrassment and cost to date, Samsung may be faced with a class action lawsuit in the US, filed on behalf of Galaxy Note 7 owners.

In summary, the recall and discontinuation of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is indeed unfortunate, and perhaps could have been avoided. Samsung may need to carefully revisit its development and testing practices, along with how best to manage the fallout from the Note 7. However, the wider industry should learn also from that experience, and hopefully limit the chances of such a dangerous situation in the future.


Image credit:  Isriya Paireepairit (flickr)