Folding Pains

Lessons from Samsung’s flexible-display troubles

It’s no secret that I’ve been excited about the advent of smartphones with flexible displays, which now seem to be commonly referred to as foldables. Had the launch of the Galaxy Fold gone according to Samsung’s plan, the phone would currently be rolling out around the world, and I have little doubt it would have been met with excitement and intrigue. But as most people now know, things didn’t turn out like that.

As one of the few people that was lucky enough to spend a little bit of time with the Galaxy Fold and its rival folding-screen device, the Huawei Mate X, I was disappointed when Samsung postponed the release of its phone.

Ultimately, Samsung had no choice but to delay the launch after reviewers reported faults with the screen. The nature of some of the failures was certainly unfortunate, like when reviewers ripped a protective layer from the display having mistaken it for a screen protector. But there appear to have been other issues that Samsung also needs to address. That said, several people I know are still using the phone without any problems.

In my opinion, Samsung’s woes underline just how hard it is to introduce cutting-edge new technology, particularly when it’s a radically different approach to the status quo. The “screen protector” issue is a good example of this. Glass that can flex and fold isn’t yet commercially available, so the only alternative is a plastic layer to protect the extremely delicate flexible display. Once this was inadvertently confused with a screen guard, the rest was history for the Galaxy Fold’s initial launch.

Furthermore, new technology is now so firmly in the public eye that there’s less “real world” testing than ever before. The epidemic of leaks, which appears with every new device unveiling, forces device makers to go to extraordinary lengths to keep new products away from prying eyes. This probably means the everyday stress testing that new devices were subjected to in the old days no longer happens, particularly for innovative devices with a radical new design. I know from personal experience that in the past, it was often the case that problems with new devices would still be picked up shortly before launch; it was just easier to quietly address them before the main event.

Another challenge is that when something does go wrong there’s nowhere to hide anymore. The proliferation of social media and the desire of bloggers and tech websites to drive traffic — and therefore revenue — means that bad news becomes big news, as Samsung knows to its great cost.

However, Samsung has clearly learned lessons from the difficulties with its ill-fated Galaxy Note7. Fortunately for the company, only a few units of the Galaxy Fold had been distributed and none of them were to customers who had paid the premium price that the device commands. Samsung now needs to regroup, address the problems and quickly get its folding phone into the market.

Huawei will undoubtedly be watching Samsung’s foldable troubles with a certain amount of trepidation. If there were ever any doubts about how fragile flexible screens can be, the Galaxy Fold has confirmed them. The design of Huawei’s Mate X wraps the flexible display around the outside of the device. As the screen is therefore always exposed, it’s likely that there’s a real risk of accidental damage.

So, what conclusions can we draw so far?

First and foremost, the Galaxy Fold problems merely underline the well-known fact that making hardware is hard. It’s very different to the world of permanent beta software that drives software companies on the web and elsewhere. This approach is clearly not suitable for highly technical, precisely engineered pieces of equipment.

However, if we want to encourage consumer electronics companies like Samsung to push the boundaries of devices we love, then we need to cut them some slack in development because it will be worth it in the end for us all.

The dawn of foldables has triggered a misstep, but the industry shouldn’t give up. Even though I believe, to some extent, that right now these devices are a solution looking for a problem, they’re an exciting and promising technology, and I still expect the Galaxy Fold and other foldable phones to be a huge hit when they finally ship.