Back to basics

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Back to basics

Samsung Electronics has failed to identify the cause of its exploding Galaxy Note7s. Hundreds of engineers have been testing the product for nearly two months since the batteries on certain units started catching fire. The company did a massive recall and then the fires continued. It had to kill the cutting-edge phone, which had been on the market for a month.

A product must be scrapped if the cause of its problem cannot be identified. A nearly $6 billion financial loss from the discontinuation of the phone is not the real problem for the world’s top smartphone maker. The fact that it cannot confidently confirm what caused its phone to catch fire is the real problem. The cause of the catastrophe may not be simple. Over-competition to come up with new innovations may have undermined product perfection.

Samsung had prided itself on the fact that the Galaxy Note7 was the most innovative smartphone to be made to date. That was not an exaggeration. It brought together the best possible technologies. The phone with a 5.7-inch organic light-emitting diode capacitive touchscreen was packaged with an iris scanner and superfast charger, on top of it being waterproof and dust-proof.

Its versatile functions, however, did not come free. The many functions of the stylus ate up power. Smartphones these days work as computers, TVs, audio devices, and games consoles as well as devices for chatting and messaging. The display is on all day. The greater battery capacity in a crammed space puts enormous stress on the device.

The Galaxy Note7 boasted a record battery capacity of 3,500mAh, even bigger than Galaxy S7 series with 3,000mAh released in the first half. The new iPhone7 can’t compete with a capacity of 2,900 mAh. The charging takes only 80 minutes, compared with 140 minutes for an iPhone to fully charge. Yet the battery life is similar. The capacity remains the same, but the iPhone’s battery life has been significantly improved thanks to its iOS 9, the ninth update to its mobile operating system, which focused less on new features but more on under-the-hood optimization and battery improvements.

The battery life of the Sony Xperia Z3 Plus has been significantly shortened because of its incompatibility with the newly adopted Snapdragon 810 chip. Software has become as important to a device as hardware.

Samsung makes its lead time — the time between the design of a product and its production — much shorter than Apple’s. It releases a Galaxy S series in the first half of each year and a Galaxy Note model in the second. Apple introduces a new series about once in two years.

Even insiders at Samsung Electronics say they show off so many features at the unveiling events every year that they are not fully aware of the full capacity of a product. Hastiness and over-competition for achievements may have been the problem. Yet speed has been Samsung’s success strategy with smartphone. The iPhone competes with brand power and software, while Samsung stayed ahead with innovative components and features in its hardware.

It would actually be good fortune for Samsung if the battery is confirmed to have been the culprit. It is an entirely different problem if it fails to find the exact cause. In that case, it would have to revamp its entire manufacturing process from planning and designing to production and oversight. Otherwise, the market will doubt the next product. No one would want to buy a phone that might catch fire — even if it’s supercool.

Samsung’s fans hope the latest ordeal with the Galaxy Note7 is part of growing pains that a company has to go through sooner or later. The lesson has been costly. Samsung may lose customers forever to iPhone. Once one adapts to the iPhone habitat, few customers change to another phone. Samsung Electronics somehow must try to make the most of its strength in speed and also pay a lot more attention to safety issues.

Japan’s Toyota Motor, too, suffered a similar recall setback. In 2009, it recalled 9.6 million cars in the United States for unintended acceleration that cost the carmaker 460 billion yen ($5 billion). But challenges are always risky. One misstep should not discourage a company. Samsung must, first of all, identify the cause of the explosions. Samsung SDI accounts for 23.2 percent of the global lithium-ion battery market, followed by Panasonic with 18.2 percent, LG Chem with 14.9 percent, ATL with 10.9 percent, and Sony 9 percent. Since Samsung SDI is in the red, other makers would be earning little from lithium-ion batteries. Samsung must identify the problem even if it has to delay the Galaxy S8 series. Consumers won’t buy a questionable device.

The company must return to the basics. Before it released the new Camry, Toyota tested more than 100 cars on the road. It toughened supervision of parts supplier and did not scrimp in production costs. The Toyota chief executive demanded employees place safety and quality first. Many companies have bounced back through product quality. U.S. wireless carrier Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said he was optimistic that Samsung Electronics will bounce back with new products and the brouhaha over the Galaxy Note7 will be forgotten if the Korean maker places priority in quality and safety. It’s a matter of priorities for Samsung now.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 17, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoonAng Ilbo.

Lee Chul-ho
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