The Galaxy Note 7 will always be 'Samsung's exploding smartphone.'
It's not been a great week for the Galaxy Note 7, following on from Samsung's unprecedented global recall earlier in the month. The following have happened in the past seven days:
- A Note 7 reportedly caught fire in an Australian hotel room, causing AU$1,870 worth of damage.
- Midweek it was reported that a charging Note 7 may have been behind the incineration of a Florida family's Jeep.
- The same day a charging Note 7 became a suspect in a fire which destroyed a house in South Carolina.
- It emerged that the Note 7 won't be widely available in Europe until after Apple's iPhone 7 has already gone on sale, after the recall scuppered the original September 2 launch date.
- Three Australian airlines banned passengers from using or charging Note 7s onboard their planes. The U.S. FAA and India's Director General of Civil Aviation advised passengers against using or charging the phones on airplanes too. Same with many Taiwanese airlines.
- The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission told Note 7 owners to power down their devices and stop using them ahead of a full and "official" recall involving Samsung and the U.S. authorities.
Short of serious injury or death, it's hard to imagine a week of more negative coverage for a piece of consumer electronics.
So is the Galaxy Note 7 past the point of no return here? Jerry makes a good argument to the contrary, saying that now more than ever folks have short memories, and that controversies like this generally blow over with time. But most of that focuses on the future of the Note brand. In the near term, the Note 7 is no longer about selling product, it's about isolating the brand damage as much as possible, and trying to ensure that the bad publicity around the phone doesn't become terminal.
We're past selling phones. Now Samsung's job is to ensure the bad publicity around the Note 7 doesn't become terminal.
That's not a criticism of the way Samsung has handled itself per se. It quickly started a
global recall "voluntary return" program and spread the word through the usual channels, with pop-up messages even appearing on Note 7 handsets in the U.S. The company's official line is that you should switch your Note off, box it up and return it. (Though it took a few days for Samsung to explicitly say this.) That's not a suggestion, and not something Samsung does lightly. Could it have shortened the turnaround time? Maybe, but swapping out over 2 million phones on a global scale is neither quick nor easy. There is however the question of whether Samsung should've been quicker to initiate an "official" recall, involving the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which might've hastened things.
But from the moment a bunch of unsafe devices made it out onto the market, the damage was already done. The Note 7 is now infamous as that Samsung phone that can catch on fire and blow up when charging. News reports picture Notes that look like they've been pulled out of a deep-fat-frier. Each new Gizmodo headline on the saga mockingly refers to it as "Samsung's exploding smartphone." That reputation, reinforced by each report of suspected Note-related fires, will be almost impossible to shift, even if future products are untarnished. (And you could easily argue that the delay in instituting an "official" recall has allowed more of these stories to come to light.)
Even post-recall, it'll be difficult to prove to cabin crews, the TSA, or whoever else, that your newly-replaced Note 7 isn't a fire hazard.
Soon we'll enter the murky phase where there are both safe and unsafe Note 7s out in the wild. Samsung will add special marks to the boxes of "safe" Note 7s once these begin shipping, and the company says it'll let customers look up their IMEI in an online database as a secondary check. That'll go some way towards guaranteeing the safety of second-hand Notes.
But the issue with the Note 7 and air travel this past week has highlighted another point of uncertainty. It's not clear there'll be any way to prove to cabin crews, the TSA, or whoever else, that your newly-replaced Note 7 isn't a fire hazard. As such, airline "bans" are unlikely to distinguish between "safe" and "unsafe" Note 7s, and that could be a serious inconvenience going forward.
True, it's going to be almost impossible for airline staff to vet each and every glass rectangle taken onboard. However even having to think about that is extra hassle — as is potentially not being able to use your Note during a flight even after replacement phones are in-hand. If you're a frequent traveler, maybe you'll end up buying a different phone that doesn't come with this baggage.
In all other respects the Galaxy Note 7 is the best Android phone you can buy right now. But the longer we continue to see reports of this or that catching fire because of a nearby Galaxy Note, and the longer the Note 7 becomes a figure of fun because of it, the the more improbable it is that this product will be salvageable.
Other doin's a-transpirin' this week:
- Apple's Twitter snafu whereby it let an entire cattery of iPhone 7 details out of the bag more than an hour early was a hilarious baptism of fire for the company's new social presence. (And one to join the ranks of TV Truck Schedule and iPhone 4 demo-Wi-Fi-gate.) Social is hard, and even with a brand as tightly controlled and polished as Apple's, it ultimately comes down to someone pressing a button.
- That said, the new iPhones looks nice — especially the new stuff Apple's doing with cameras in the larger model. (Particularly hot: the "jet black" color that's already back-ordered to November — and will probably get scratched up within weeks.) For the first time on AC, we'll actually be reviewing the iPhone this year (watch this space in the coming weeks). A major iPhone launch only comes once a year, and it's a big enough deal to be worth some of our time to take a look.
- It was also interesting to watch Apple say absolutely nothing about Samsung's Note 7 woes. (There's plenty of material to work with, and the timing couldn't have been more perfect for Cupertino.) The company came off as classier for it — and for the fact that it largely ignored Android this time as opposed to smack-talking.
- There's a new Nougat build for the Nexus 6P, which also includes the September security patches. The old "final" build (NRD90M) was never linked on Google's site, and doesn't seem to have made it out to many outside the Android beta program. (According to one carrier it was pulled due to issues.) I was seeing a fair amount of jank on the old build, and the new one (NRD90U) fixes things right up.
- I got to play with the LG V20 in Berlin last week ahead of its announcement. It's essentially a much nicer G5 in a larger form factor, and I'm pleased LG's keeping the removable battery option around for those who want it. (Though it's no surprise LG's dropped the whole "modular" thing already.) Unfortunately it's a phone I'll probably never be able to buy — LG is waffly on if/when the V20 is ever coming to Europe, which probably means it's had a hard time getting Euro carriers onboard after the flop of the G5.
That's it from me for a few weeks. We'll continue our rotating Editor's Desk feature next week!