Galaxy Fold: Inside Samsung’s struggle to deliver a foldable phone – and why the future of smartphones hinges on it

CEO DJ Koh opens up about release date delay and dismisses rumours of $2,000 device being shelved

Anthony Cuthbertson
In Seoul, South Korea
@ADCuthbertson
Saturday 06 July 2019 17:33
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Samsung Galaxy S10 showcases new foldable phone

Samsung’s foldable smartphone was supposed to be a fresh start. With the smoke still clearing from the Galaxy Note 7 debacle – which saw batteries of the 2016 flagship phone spontaneously catch fire and explode – the Galaxy Fold signalled Samsung’s intention to move forward by completely reimagining the stale and saturated smartphone market.

The phone’s creators described the Fold as “the foundation of the smartphone of tomorrow”, claiming it would “overturn expectations and set the industry on a new path”. Part smartphone, part tablet, the Galaxy Fold bridged two multibillion-dollar device categories through a folding design that allowed it to open like a book.

The design was an eye-catching statement from the world’s biggest smartphone maker, and after months of hype and rumour the first devices landed in the pockets of tech reviewers and journalists in April. But then disaster struck. “The screen of my Galaxy Fold review unit is completely broken and unusable just two days in,” one reviewer tweeted. “The display spazzed and blacked out,” wrote another blogger.

Headlines around the world declared: “The future is very fragile”; “A broken dream”; and “A bold bet that is not ready”. It seemed the $2,000 (£1,580) Galaxy Fold had gone the way of Google Glass smartglasses and modular phones before it: rushed to market and widely ridiculed by the very same pundits responsible for the hype that brought it there.

At a recent meeting with The Independent and select other media outlets in Seoul, South Korea, Samsung explained how the problems happened and revealed the current status of Galaxy Fold. “It was embarrassing. I pushed it through before it was ready,” said DJ Koh. As the CEO of Samsung Electronics, Koh oversees a company that has been the world’s number one smartphone maker since 2012.

At a time when flagship smartphone innovation has flatlined to iterative updates of cameras and screen resolutions, all the major manufacturers are looking to what’s next. The futuristic folding form offers a break from the boringly predictable improvements, and is one that Samsung’s competitors are betting might represent the future of smartphones.

Samsung Electronics CEO DJ Koh in Seoul at the end of last month

Samsung first teased the Galaxy Fold in November 2018. But in the time since, Chinese smartphone giants Huawei and Xiaomi have both announced their own foldable phones. Having recently overtaken Apple as the world’s second largest smartphone maker, Huawei’s Mate X device poses arguably the biggest threat to Samsung in this new category.

Such pressure resulted in the rushed launch of the Galaxy Fold before adequate testing had been undertaken. “I do admit I missed something on the foldable phone, but we are in the process of recovery,” Koh said. “At the moment, more than 2,000 devices are being tested right now in all aspects. We defined all the issues. Some issues we didn’t even think about, but thanks to our reviewers, mass volume testing is ongoing.”

Since Samsung first announced the Galaxy Fold delay, Huawei has also pushed back its plans to launch its Mate X folding phone, in an effort to avoid the same mistakes. With no official release date announced by either firm, rumours have begun to emerge they may yet be cancelled.

Samsung releases video showing Galaxy Fold device being tested for creases when phone closes

‘Do what you can’t’

Samsung’s head of global marketing strategy, Stephanie Choi, suggested the issues with the Galaxy Fold aren’t rooted simply in Koh’s impatience, but a company restructure that took place more than 25 years ago. One of the slogans of the “new management initiative” was “change everything”, and it was this that first led Samsung to move into the nascent mobile phone business. Another of the slogans was “do what you can’t”.

Ever since the new strategy launched in 1993, Samsung has relentlessly pursued new technologies and innovation by investing 15 per cent of its spending in R&D. “Our brand philosophy is ‘do what you can’t’,” Choi says. “We make what can’t be made, and do what can’t be done. This [Galaxy Fold issue] is unfortunately sometimes part of this process.”

The Galaxy Fold will be released ‘in due course’ says Samsung 

All of the drama surrounding the Galaxy Fold has distracted from the most important question hanging over Samsung: will customers actually buy it? A folding smartphone-tablet hybrid might create a buzz by virtue of its innovative design, but the practicalities of owning one remain uncertain.

Folded up, it is twice as bulky as a regular smartphone, making it unsuitable for tight pockets. And while the folded-out screen may offer more space to watch TV shows and films, the 4:3 ratio means the top and bottom of the screen will be thick black lines. One dominant theory among industry experts is that this new wave of folding phones is a signal that the end of the smartphone era is nigh.

End of the smartphone era?

With the convergence of AI voice assistants, cloud computing, 5G and the internet of things connecting any type of smart device online, it may soon no longer be necessary to carry around a computer in your pocket. The folding screen could be the first step towards a future without smartphones.

“Smartphone design has hit a limit, that’s why we designed a folding phone,” said Kang Yun-Je, head of Samsung Electronic’s design team. “But we’re also focusing on other devices that are beginning to make a wider impact on the market, like smart earphones and smart watches. In five years or so, people will not even realise they are wearing screens. It will be seamless.”

It is 10 years since the launch of Samsung’s first Galaxy smartphone, which came in response to arguably the first ever truly mainstream smartphone: the Apple iPhone. Smartphones have since become both ubiquitous and essential, allowing people to go from watching the news to ordering a taxi in just a couple of taps of a screen. But as new technologies emerge, the functionality of these electronic Swiss Army knives is beginning to feel limited.

Diego Cibils, cofounder of AI software firm Kona, believes we are on the cusp of the next great advance in computers. “The smartphone was a great device for what I think is a transitional period between the desktop computing paradigm and the ‘freedom computing’ paradigm,” he says.

Smartphone technology has come a long way since Apple unveiled the first iPhone in 2007 (Getty)

It is a concept that anyone who has watched a major product launch from either Apple, Samsung, Facebook or Google in recent years will be familiar with – technology giants branching out into new device categories that could shape this new era. “[The] previous 10 years, it was an era of the smartphone,” said Koh. “From this year, maybe a new era is opening because of the emergence of the internet of things, 5G, AI, and all these technologies mingling together. The new era is in front of us.”

When asked whether he foresees a future without smartphones, Koh suggested the Galaxy Fold could be the beginning of the end. “Foldable will last a couple of years,” he said. “Another form factor is a possibility, but I will say that once 5G and the internet of things are available [together], we must think rather than smartphones, we must think smart devices. Smartphones may decline but new devices will emerge.”

Samsung’s smart fridge on display at the 2018 IFA trade fair in Berlin (Getty)

He gave the example of moving from your home to your car to your office. Interconnected and multi-screen smart devices in each location will allow people to carry out all the tasks they would usually perform on their phones, without actually needing to carry one around.

From watching videos and listening to music, to reading messages and dictating replies, “you can have the same experience, wherever you are”. Flexible screen technology, as pioneered by the Galaxy Fold, is vital for such a future to be realised – whether it comes on an item of clothing, or something that can wrap around a wrist.

A fragile future?

The Galaxy Fold fiasco may not have been the fresh start Samsung was hoping for, but it is nowhere near as damaging or dangerous for its business, brand or customers as the issues with the Note 7.

With only a handful of devices ever going out into the wild, there was no need for a costly and complicated recall. And despite the drama fuelled by some sectors of the tech press, a creased screen was never a threat to anyone’s safety.

It is the difference between a scandal and a slip-up. Yet the stakes should not be understated. If the folding phone does represent the future of the smartphone, as Samsung claims, then its failure to deliver one would risk the firm’s market-leading position.

It has been months since the Galaxy Fold was meant to go on sale, yet there has been no new release date revealed. Koh is adamant that its arrival is a matter of when, not if, but refuses to be more specific. “The last couple of weeks I think we defined all of the issues and all of the problems we couldn’t find [before sending to reviewers].”

When pressed to give even a rough idea of when it can be expected, he borrowed an expression he said he learned during his time spent studying in England. “In due course,” he said. “Give us a bit more time.”

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