A combination photo shows a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 exploding as pressure is applied to its fully charged battery during a test at the Applied Energy Hub battery laboratory in Singapore. Photograph: Edgar Su/Reuters
The saga of the exploding Galaxy Note 7s has turned into a fully-fledged crisis for Samsung.
First released in August, the phone initially received rave reviews for the extent to which it pushed the envelope on what a phablet-sized smartphone could do. It shipped with wireless charging, a battery that lasted well over a day and charged to 70% in less than an hour, and a USB-C connector – Samsung’s first phone to use the next-generation port.
Then it started exploding.
Sporadic reports came in over early September suggesting that the phone’s battery became unstable when fully charged, and could overheat and explode. Samsung issued a global replacement programme, but steered clear of using the language of a “recall” – until the US consumer product safety commission stepped in and told it that it couldn’t bypass procedure.
Once the recall was announced, Samsung also issued a software update to earlier versions, capping the charge at 60% and displaying a warning as the devices were powered on. For the most part, the problems were limited to North America and South Korea, the two markets where the majority of the devices had been sold, and it looked like Samsung could begin to fix the problem.
Then, in early October, replacement Note 7s began to explode or catch fire as well. As of 10 October, eight have hit the press: five in the US, including one on a flight; one in Taiwan; and two in South Korea. Overnight, Samsung announced that it was “temporarily adjusting the Galaxy Note 7 production schedule”. The announcement apparently buried the news twice over: not only was it released immediately after the US presidential debate, it appears that the “adjustment” is down to zero. Korean news agency Yonhap reported that production was stopped entirely.
The issue appears endemic to the Note 7, and could be a direct result of the same envelope-pushing that earned the phone praise at its launch. According to Bloomberg, Samsung expressly tried to rush a number of new features into the Note 7 all at once. The company had taken heed of rumours, proven correct, that the iPhone 7, released in September, would be an incremental update to the the earlier iPhone 6s, and wanted to capitalise on the “boring” release by dropping an exciting phone of its own a few days before.
The Note 7 was certainly exciting. If Samsung is lucky, the damage to the brand will be limited to one phone. But there’s a risk, as is so often the case, that the perception of a cover-up may prove to be worse than the issue.
That perception began almost the same time reports of exploding phones began trickling. Samsung’s decision to bypass official recall procedures was odd, and it took days for the company to work with the authorities and issue a strongly worded statement “asking users to power down their Galaxy Note 7s and exchange them now”.
When the replacement phones began exploding, it again took the company almost a week to take action. Worse, some customers reported what looked like attempts to keep them quiet. A Kentucky man whose phone caught fire on 4 October told his local news station that he’d felt like Samsung were helping him, until he received what he said was a misdirected text from a Samsung rep: “Just now got this. I can try and slow him down if we think it will matter, or we just let him do what he keeps threatening to do and see if he does it.” The company was so slow taking action that many US carriers decided to act unilaterally. Both AT&T and T-Mobile stopped selling the phone, based on the reports.
Worst of all, the crisis is threatening to engulf other areas of the Korean giant’s business. A lawsuit in the US alleges that washing machines sold in the US are also dodgy, prompting a CPSC intervention to “address safety issues”. Worse, the suit claims another cover-up: that Samsung “moved aggressively to collect and destroy all evidence of the defective machines” after they exploded.
It may be unfair, but Samsung is no longer fighting to defend the Note 7. The company says it “understands the concern our carriers and consumers must be feeling after recent reports have raised questions about our newly released replacement Note7 devices”.
“We want to reassure our customers that we take every report seriously and we appreciate their patience as we work diligently through this process.”
Its task now is to prevent the perception spreading that it’s a company that cares more for PR wins than customer safety.