Samsung's rocky Galaxy Fold launch is a cautionary tale for its biggest rivals

Hollis Johnson/Business InsiderThe Samsung Galaxy Fold

When Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Fold in February, it positioned it as being the next evolution of the smartphone – a breakthrough that would take Samsung’s mobile devices to the next level following the launch of its popular Galaxy S line nearly a decade ago.

The press, tech industry pundits, and general audiences ate it up. At a time when smartphone releases have become increasingly mundane, offering little more than faster processors, better cameras, and larger screens, the Galaxy Fold had the potential to bring back some much-needed inventiveness that the industry had been missing.

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold certainly left an impression, but not the one the company had hoped for. Just two days after the company distributed review units of the device to press, a few reviewers reported that the Fold’s flexible screen had completely broken, rendering the device unusable. Two reviewers accidentally peeled off a protective polymer layer – not realising they weren’t supposed to – subsequently causing the screen to malfunction. In two separate instances, reviewers that did not remove this film also reported broken screens.

Samsung has since delayed the phone’s launch as it further investigates the cause behind these issues, turning what should have been the start of an exciting new chapter for Samsung into a public relations disaster.

But perhaps more importantly, the episode leaves the door open for rival smartphone makers like Huawei and Motorola to establish themselves as the leader in this emerging space – a title Samsung had hoped to claim for itself by launching its foldable first. It underscores an important lesson that Samsung and other tech firms developing products in new categories can learn: getting it right the first time is more important than simply being first.

Samsung’s most formidable rival in the foldable smartphone category is likely Huawei, which unveiled its own bendable device just days after the Galaxy Fold’s debut in February. Unlike the Fold, Huawei’s Mate X folds outward, with the screen located on the device’s exterior, allowing for a different design that seemingly folds more like paper while Samsung’s snaps open and shut like a book. It also offers a much larger screen when in smartphone mode than the Fold. That phone is very unlikely to launch in the United States, however, because of ongoing concerns about national security and the company’s link to the Chinese government.

Huawei hasn’t announced an exact launch date for the Mate X beyond saying it will come in the middle of 2019. It’s unclear if Huawei will beat Samsung to the punch, but if Samsung still is first to market it likely won’t be for very long. Similarly, Motorola is expected to release a foldable smartphone this summer, likely a refresh of its popular Razr from the early 2000s, according to CNET.

Another takeaway to be had from Samsung’s Galaxy Fold launch is not to assume anything is too obvious, especially when it comes to a new kind of device like the Fold. Part of the Fold’s screen issues stemmed from reviewers accidentally peeling off a critical piece of the Fold’s screen. This was particularly problematic, not just simply because it happened, but because it illustrated just how easy it is to pull apart the screen on a $US2,000 device. As The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern put it: “And if companies are going to ship products with known weaknesses, they shouldn’t just hope we read a user manual-and don’t accidentally peel off some damn plastic.”

Samsung said it will clearly communicate to customers that this layer should not be removed. But had this not happened during the Galaxy Fold review cycle, would Samsung have even warned consumers not to peel off that film? It’s a cautionary tale for companies like Huawei, Motorola, Xiaomi and others that are working on smartphones in new foldable form factors.

People don’t often remember the first product in a new category. But they do remember the first device in that new category that they have actually wanted to use. Look to Apple’s iPad as a case study. Tablets existed before the iPad – like Microsoft’s Tablet PC from 2002 – but none were as successful. In the third quarter of 2010, the year the iPad launched, Apple claimed 95% of the tablet PC market, according to a Wall Street Journal report at the time. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold launch is a prime example of why Apple is rarely first when it comes to new product categories like smartwatches, tablets, and perhaps one day foldable phones.

Of course, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Early tablets failed to gain traction because the experience wasn’t there yet, while the Galaxy Fold appears to have suffered from technical issues with the way the device was designed. What’s perhaps most unfortunate for Samsung is that, had this broken-screen fiasco not happened, the overall reception to the Galaxy Fold may have been pretty positive. It’s very much a first-generation product that’s too expensive for most people, but design quirks aside, it was enough to convince me and other reviewers that foldable phones could be the future.

With its delayed launch, Samsung has a second chance to make the impression it had hoped to leave the first time, so long as a rival tech firm doesn’t get there first. But the bigger question isn’t which company will be the first to the foldable phone market, it’s which one will be best.

Have you preordered the Galaxy Fold? We want to hear from you! Email [email protected] to contact this reporter.

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