Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 explanation didn't go far enough
Samsung issued a report on its findings Sunday night. Long story short, two separate battery flaws from two separate manufacturers caused some Note 7 phones to overheat and catch fire.
(You can read more details of Samsung's findings here.)
But while the report does a good job of explaining the engineering failings that killed the Note 7 and the testing that will happen in the future to check the batteries Samsung uses, it never offered reassurance that Samsung has taken the pulse of its culture to fix the decision-making process that caused the problems in the first place.
Even before the Note 7 launched, there were signs the company rushed the device's launch in order to beat Apple's iPhone 7 to market. Bloomberg reported that Samsung's mobile boss, D.J. Koh, wanted to launch the phone ahead of schedule and executives "pushed suppliers to meet tighter deadlines, despite loads of new features."
At first, the gamble appeared to pay off. The Note 7 received nearly universal glowing reviews just days before Apple announced the iPhone 7. I even called the Note 7 the best-looking phone ever built. Samsung had finally out-designed Apple.
We all know what happened next.
What's missing from Samsung's report is an explanation for the thinking of Samsung's executives ahead of the Note 7 launch. Did they really cut corners in order to rush the product out ahead of the iPhone 7, as had been reported? Did anyone know that the battery had the potential to be defective? After the initial recall of the Note 7, did another rush job lead to the second battery failure?
We don't know because that was largely left out of Samsung's report Sunday. Instead, we got a clinical description of what went wrong with the battery and how they'll be tested in the future. That's a great first step, but it doesn't address the cultural issues within Samsung that need to be fixed in order to ensure customers it's safe to buy the company's products.
"In terms of launch timing, it's important to note that the product was launched in accordance with our annual roadmap and all safety and quality assurance processes in place at that time were followed," a Samsung spokesperson told me in an email.
One person familiar with the Note 7's development told me last fall that the company was examining its internal culture to figure out how to prevent future debacles. But if Samsung did in fact go through a lot of cultural introspection over the last few months, that wasn't communicated Sunday night.
Competition isn't going to get easier. Samsung's rivals like Apple and Huawei will continue to pump out their best stuff, and the pressure will always be on Samsung to meet or beat them. What we don't have is an assurance from the company that its drive to sell more phones will supersede potential safety concerns.
I'm not alone in my skepticism. Wall Street Journal tech columnists Joanna Stern and Geoffrey Fowler gave Samsung's Note 7 report a "C" for its failure to disclose what decisions led to the Note 7 explosions in the first place and push safety standards forward across the whole industry.
Samsung still has an opportunity to address the problem though. Every year it reorganizes its leadership, a tactic to keep fresh ideas flowing and trim the fat. But the reorg, which usually happens in early December, hasn't been announced yet, likely due to the focus on the Note 7 investigation. Now that the investigation is over, Samsung has the chance to hold the people who made the decision to release the Note 7 accountable and put safeguards in place to make sure it doesn't happen again.
And there are some signs that Samsung has pushed back the launch of its next major phone, the Galaxy S8, likely to double check that it's safe before a public launch. That's promising.
For now though, the Note 7's demise will loom over everything the company does for the rest of the year. Samsung's report Sunday night was a mediocre attempt at reassuring its products will be safe.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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