Galaxy Fold problems create ripe opportunity for Mate X and foldable Motorola Razr – CNET

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A colleague asked me today what I thought the delay of Samsung's $2,000 Galaxy Fold meant for the brand. To bring you up to speed, the phone maker announced on Monday that it will postpone sales of its first foldable phone following last week's reports of “broken” screens

This is a meaty question, because it gets to the heart of what it means for Samsung, for interested buyers and for other brands that have their eye on making foldable phones. In other words, the world is watching Samsung's every move, either to cut and run if buyers grow cold, or to extend their own brand as a “true” foldable success. 

Samsung's decision to push back the Fold after moving so quickly to be the first to sell a high-profile foldable phone is already making an enormous impact on the brand's reputation, overshadowing the Fold's other achievements on unaffected devices. CNET's Galaxy Fold review unit has a small screen nick, but no major problems.

Although the blowback could have been far worse for Samsung — the Folds with broken screens aren't dangerous, unlike 2016's overheating Galaxy Note 7 — the early issues are calling into question Samsung's ability to innovate.

For example, the Galaxy S10 phones have been hailed by reviewers like me (I especially like the S10 Plus and value S10E), but it's Huawei's P30 Pro and P30 that are grabbing headlines for their fantastic low-light photography and zoom performance. Despite serious political road blocks, Huawei's determination to overtake Samsung as the world's largest phone maker by 2020 has real energy behind it.

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Similarly, Huawei's <span class="link" section="shortcodeLink"><a href="https://www.cnet.com/news/using-the-mate-x-made-me-a-foldable-phone-believer/">foldable Mate X</a></span> is in hot pursuit of the Fold, promising <a href="https://www.cnet.com/5g/" data-annotation="true" data-component="linkTracker" data-link-tracker-options="{"action":"inline-annotation|5G|CNET_TAG|150"}">5G</a> speeds and a dramatically different design that puts the foldable screen on the outside of the device rather than the inside, as it is with the Fold. And Motorola is rumored to launch a foldable reenvisioning of its <span class="link" section="shortcodeLink"><a href="https://www.cnet.com/news/forget-the-galaxy-fold-and-huawei-mate-x-the-motorola-razr-is-the-foldable-phone-to-beat/">Razr flip phone</a></span>. Both could gain from Samsung's setbacks.

Neither Huawei, Motorola or Samsung immediately responded to a request for comment. However, Samsung did say in a statement on Monday, “We value the trust our customers place in us and they are always our top priority … We want to thank them for their patience and understanding.”

Three screen problems to fix, not one

Remember that there are three main screen problems that affected a handful of Fold reviewers. 

  • Samsung's failure to clearly communicate that reviewers shouldn't pull off the protective layer on the Fold's plastic screen led to instant failure of the display.
  • Debris that got caught underneath the screen created a bulge and distortion.
  • The left half of the Fold's screen on one review unit flickered for no apparent reason.
308-galaxy-fold
The Galaxy Fold wants to be a multitasking machine.


Sarah Tew/CNET

What the Galaxy Fold delay means for Samsung

The Fold's delay means a few different things for Samsung, as spectators wonder if the tech giant overlooked important quality control in its rush to be first to foldable.

Here's another way to consider the postponement: Samsung is taking the screen issues seriously. Backpedaling buys it time to fix mistakes and apologize to customers in a meaningful way.

During this pause, Samsung is working on new packaging that makes it obvious which plastic films you should and shouldn't remove. The company is also certainly engineering new ways to reinforce the screen. These things take time, and Samsung has only one chance to get a do-over right as a matter of damage control.

Galaxy Fold - Samsung email to preorder customers
An email Samsung sent on Monday to me and other people who preordered the Galaxy Fold.


Screenshot by CNET

Samsung might also be training support staff on new procedures for what to do if customers call in to complain of screen issues. I'll speculate that Samsung is creating a concierge track for Fold buyers that will get them in touch with help faster. After all, a $2,000 investment is, in the phone world, on par with airline status or elite car ownership, stations that come with customer service perks.

Samsung confirmed in a statement that it will “take measures to strengthen the display protection” as well as “enhance the guidance on care and use of the display including the protective layer.”

How doubt about the Galaxy Fold could help rivals

If Samsung's assurances aren't enough, it's quite possible that observers will sour on the Fold in particular and on foldable phones in general. Even then, rivals have an opportunity to change people's minds.

The Fold is an incredibly expensive device with a particular design and feature set. Positioned as a luxury electronic, it isn't meant to be a mass market sensation. At best, early adopters and developers will buy it as a status symbol, or to test apps. For many, the Fold is a proof of concept design that could either get them to consider the possibility of one day using a foldable phone of their own, or to confirm what they've known all along — that “nobody” needs a foldable handset.

But if Huawei, with its $2,600 Mate X, or Motorola, with its rumored $1,500 back-to-the-future flip phone, were to enter the market late in the day, with perfectly working screens and well-considered designs, they could conceivably swoop in and claim the glory by establishing how a “good” problem-free foldable phone could work.

Is it even possible for a foldable phone to be problem-free? From what I've seen after a week with the Galaxy Fold, and after a few minutes with the Mate X and with TCL's foldable concept mock-ups, no. At this early stage, it's about seeing what sticks.

The best thing for all of us to remember is that foldable phones are a brand-new thing, and that mistakes are bound to be made as we collectively figure out what works and what doesn't. This reality doesn't excuse the Fold's early issues any more than it exonerates Huawei's inevitable wobbles when it releases the Mate X this summer. 

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Perhaps Samsung's biggest gift of all to Huawei and Motorola (maybe) and every other brand from LG to Apple is in putting itself before consumers first, while competitors jot down notes. 

In this foldable phone race, winning might not mean crossing the finish line ahead of everyone else. Victory might go instead to the last brand standing.

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