Monday, January 23, 2017

Samsung finally provides a sincerely and apologetic reason for the Galaxy Note 7 catching fire

The Galaxy Note 7 started life looking like Samsung’s best ever smartphone: it combined the huge screen and stylus of a phablet with the petite dimensions of a regular smartphone. But it also had a fatal battery flaw, which led it to overheat and catch fire, turning what was meant to be Samsung Mobile’s glorious apogee into its ignominious nadir. On Sunday night, Samsung streamed an exhaustive 50-minute presentation, covering the findings from its battery fault investigation, and it started things off on the right note. The head of its mobile division, DJ Koh, said:

"First of all, I deeply apologize to all of our customers, carriers, retail, and distribution partners. [...] We believe that, as a first step to regain your trust, it is important to provide you with a thorough understanding of the cause behind the Galaxy Note 7 incidents and to implement a comprehensive plan to take preventative measures."

Why does this matter? After all, an apology costs Samsung nothing, and provides equally scant reassurance that battery issues with the company’s devices won’t repeat themselves. Yet even so, I think it’s important in setting the right tone. Samsung isn’t dodging responsibility and is openly accepting blame for its lapse in quality assurance (QA). At a time when corporations, politicians, and sportspeople caught cheating invariably talk their way around their failures, Samsung has stepped up and simply admitted it.

Not only was Samsung upfront about letting its customers and partners down, it also went into spectacular depth of detail in explaining the battery issues it had encountered. First came Samsung’s own findings, then three independent investigator firms all took turns presenting their own conclusions. To bolster its claim that it has taken this matter seriously, Samsung pointed out that it built a dedicated "large scale" facility purely to test the charge and discharge process of batteries inside its Note 7, and it has also committed more than 700 engineers to the task of diagnosing the flaws leading to the smartphone’s eventual recall. That’s almost as big a task force as Apple has working on the iPhone cameras.

As The Wall Street Journal rightly points out, questions still remain about the content of Samsung’s explanation, which identifies different faults in the original battery of the Galaxy Note 7 and the subsequent replacement battery. It seems highly unlikely that Samsung could have suffered two independent battery malfunctions without some connecting problem — but Samsung and all of its auditors conclude that the issues resided within the batteries themselves and not the electrical or software design of the Note 7.

The most likely explanation is one of sloppy QA on Samsung’s part. The auditors identify basic failures like missing or uneven insulation tape and charge level inconsistencies, while also pointing to thinner internal separators and the Note 7 battery’s higher energy density as contributing factors. Granted, Samsung had already put a larger battery (3,600mAh vs. 3,500mAh) in its earlier Galaxy S7 Edge, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Note 7 was pushing the engineering limits for fitting high-capacity batteries within thin mobile devices.

Samsung’s Koh admitted that the company was "aggressive" in its pursuit of a larger battery for the Galaxy Note 7, which was considered essential because of users’ increased multimedia usage — think Snapchat, Periscope, and Facebook Live — and expectations. Samsung’s modus operandi for competing with the iPhone at the premium end of the mobile market has always been to have the more impressive specs and technical capabilities — which in the case of the Galaxy Note 7 seems to have pushed the company to rush products (and replacements) out the door before they were adequately tested and verified to be safe.

There’s no sidestepping the enormous challenge that Samsung now faces in trying to regain consumers’ faith in its products. It’s evident that, even if Samsung’s mobile engineering wasn’t directly at fault, the company’s processes and manufacturing tolerances weren’t as strict as they ought to have been. There’s also an unanswered question about when exactly Samsung became aware of the initial problem: was the company reckless about a known issue or was it negligent in its oversight?

Samsung’s apology has been comprehensive and, as far as a big conglomerate can be, humble and sincere. But not everything that happened has been fully explained, and it appears like the Korean chaebol won’t be disclosing anything further. Samsung’s focus is now on the future, and it has announced a new eight-step testing process to validate future batteries for safety, promising to also add an extra protective bracket to prevent phone drops from harming the battery within.

The actions Samsung has taken to rectify the calamitous Galaxy Note 7 situation will take time to fully assess. The company seems to be giving itself more time with the next Galaxy S flagship smartphone, which will come later than its traditional Mobile World Congress debut at the end of February. But the attitude and humility expressed by Samsung can be commended already.

Below are the various infographics Samsung has provided with their press conference:

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