The Samsung Galaxy Fold may be an incredible step forward in phone engineering, but it is unfinished. That became clear when, earlier this week, Samsung announced it was delaying the release of the phone. What was available to reviewers, analysts, influencers, and select partners was essentially a beta device — with those same people serving as beta testers. It never should have seen the light of day.
It was a nice sample size, of course. You had people with little understanding of phone design checking it out next to people who have been reviewing gadgets for a decade, so you got things like people removing a film that shouldn’t be removed, while others were busy noting Samsung had left a gap between the display and the hinge that debris could fill.
This thing wasn’t ready to be evaluated as a fully functioning device but, until Monday afternoon, Samsung barrelled ahead, set on releasing an unfinished phone like it was a buggy game that could be patched later. That practice is obscenely obnoxious in the software space, and should never even be a possibility in the hardware space. Samsung likely pressed ahead because it wanted to be viewed as the first — the first big phone maker to release a big, gorgeous folding smartphone.
Being the first is a big deal. Even if you aren’t technically the first, having the world remember you as such can be huge. Apple is recognised as the first smartphone, and that cultural cachet helped propel it to becoming one of the most profitable companies in history. For a company like Samsung, which has been plagued by big PR problems like the Note 7, and its C-suite’s jaunts to Korean prison, being the first and being successful at it would be a huge win.
But being the first is also a big gamble. If you’re the first to market but the product is rubbish then it can ruin not only a company’s prospects in the field, but also the product category itself. Google rushed a janky Google Glass to market and likely poisoned the general public to smartglasses for a decade. Nintendo got the Virtual Boy out there too quickly in 1995 because it wanted to rush into development on its next big console, and besides being a commercial failure, it poisoned VR in the gamer imagination for nearly 20 years.
Samsung saying it would get out a high quality and attractive folding smartphone before anyone else was a major gamble for the company. I can’t help but think it was propelled by its rivalry with Huawei which has been nipping at Samsung’s heels, both on the folding phone front, and in terms of its overall phone business. Huawei is giant China in action — strong enough that it’s the second largest shipper of phones behind Samsung in the world.
Samsung needed that win against Huawei, which announced its own folding phone not long after Samsung but doesn’t expect to ship until much later this year. At the same time, with the firey Galaxy Note 7 disaster being not even three years old, it couldn’t afford another high profile phone debacle.
I think Samsung lovers and haters alike can agree that the decision to move the release date and re-evaluate the phone was a good one. But honestly, I’m still worried that Samsung seemed content to ship a beta product. While Gizmodo’s review sample has held up wonderfully despite daily use, my colleague Sam Rutherford noted that the phone has some issues, and I think proper testing by Samsung should have turned them up long before the phone came into our possession. But Samsung either didn’t recognise the problems or chose to ignore them. Which really makes it seem like Samsung didn’t learn anything from the Note 7.
The Galaxy Fold is a clever device that shows a lot of design savvy and engineering ingenuity. For now, it’s unclear whether Samsung will go through with shipping the flawed device, but some of the damage might already be done. It’s wise for the company to hold out for now, and it might be worth it taking the reputational hit of not releasing this version of the product at all. You have to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, and it looks like this week Samsung might have learnt that lesson.
All photos: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)