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Samsung Galaxy Fold

Samsung has postponed high-profile Galaxy Fold launches in Hong Kong and Shanghai. That’s after review phones sent to journalists had screen failures.

Samsung can ill-afford a second major phone launch disaster. In 2016 the company’s Galaxy Note 7 had battery problems that caused the phone to explode. There were two product recalls. Samsung had to withdraw the phone.

The most humiliating aspect of this came every time an airplane took off. Cabin crew would remind passengers of the explosion danger.

Lasting brand damage

If the Galaxy Fold fails on the same scale, and it looks as if it could, there could be long-term damage to Samsung’s brand.

This is a pity. Folding phones were the star attraction at this year’s Mobile World Congress. If they work as promised, they will give the business the biggest shake up since Apple’s first iPhone.

When folded, folding phones look much like today’s premium phones. The difference is they can fold open to give you a much bigger, tablet-like screen. This makes reading and working on a phone far easier.

Galaxy Fold expensive

Foldability comes at a high price. When, or if, they hit the market the early models will cost the thick end of NZ$4000.

Samsung and Huawei both had models on show at MWC. Some other brands demonstrated folding phones that are still in the pipeline.

Huawei gave New Zealand journalists a brief Mate X demonstration. It was long enough to get a feel for how the phones look. The display is impressive, but you do have to live with a slight crease or line down the centre of the larger screen. The hands on session wasn’t long enough to test the phones in any meaningful way.

Across the aisle, Samsung displayed its Galaxy Fold phone in a glass cabinet. There was no opportunity for the adoring crowds to get closer.

Samsung Galaxy Fold, part folded

Folding phones are impressive

At first sight both phones looked impressive. When folded they are at the large end of the phone spectrum. You could fit one in a jacket pocket. They weigh a few grams more than premium other phones. Opened, they are about the size of an iPad mini.

Most modern phone have toughened glass screens. Samsung covered the Galaxy Fold screen with a protective, flexible layer of plastic. The idea is that this stops the screen from getting scratched. If necessary, Samsung can replace this without the need to replace the rest of the screen.

In some cases review devices failed because journalists pulled off this protective layer. This left the screens vulnerable and easy to break.

Battle of the Galaxy Fold bulge

Yet that only accounted for some of the review screen failures. Journalists reported other screen problems. Some has models where half the unfolded display stopped working. At the Verge, Dieter Bohn’s review phone developed a bulge. This broke the screen.

Samsung cranked its communications machine into damage control mode. It issued a statement saying it durability tested phones to withstand 200,000 folds. It also said the problems were with a limited number of early samples.

If that’s true, the company still has a sizeable public relations disaster on its hands. Sending out half-finished breakable products is, at best, irresponsible. Remember, this is the company that once risked airplanes with exploding phones. Samsung should have learned to take extra care with launches.

Huawei Mate X

Meanwhile Huawei is prepping its Mate X for sale. If the company is prudent it will give the first batch extra testing before sending phones out. After all, Huawei has its own publicity problem caused by incompetence to deal with.

It’s starting to look as if Samsung could have a serious cultural problem. It’s not clear if the problem is engineering, marketing or management. One criticism is that management is rigid and unwilling to listen to warnings when things aren’t going well. Staff fear being punished for “disloyalty” and say nothing.

The company is capable of delivering stunning products. Every so often it can claim to have the world’s best phone. Yet, the Galaxy Fold and the Galaxy Note 7 have not been the only missteps. They happen to be bigger and more noticeable.

Otherwise impressive

The incident is disappointing on another level. Folding phones are amazing technology. They are a sight to behold.

I’m a hardened old campaigner when it comes to new products. Often at product launches I’m the grouchy one who isn’t impressed by demonstrations of slight improvements. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than an enthusiastic employee inviting me to praise a product when I’m working hard to stifle a yawn.

Folding phones weren’t like that. They charmed and impressed me. Sooner or later I’m going to want to own a folding phone.

It’s a cliché in the tech business to say that Apple is often late with the newest ideas, but that when it moves it gets things right. Yet, if Huawei’s Mate X fails to take off, we may have to wait for the iPhone Fold before folding screen technology is ready for prime time.

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