Samsung’s Quest to Beat the iPhone Led the Galaxy Note 7 to Blow Up (Literally)

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Who’s to blame for the fact that millions of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones have gotten recalled from customers, due to the fact that some of them have exploded? … Apple! Okay, not really. It’s Samsung’s fault for rushing their phone’s launch ahead of the release of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.

Even before the iPhone 7 came out, the word on the street was that it would be a lackluster launch for Apple. The biggest rumored change was that the iPhone 7 would be removing the headphone jack, and indeed it did—which wasn’t necessarily a popular decision. Mostly, though, early talk about the iPhone 7 seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t be introducing any mind-blowing or game-changing features.

This provided a potential opportunity for Samsung to pull ahead of its competitor. Admittedly, it seems unimaginable that any other smartphone developer could beat Apple at this point, since the iPhone is such a dominant force, but Samsung had to try—or, at least, that’s what their plan seemed to have been. Bloomberg has interviewed several tech business experts about the Samsung fallout, as well as anonymous sources who worked with Samsung during that time, and it seems as though the reason the Note 7 got rushed out the door was to beat the launch of the iPhone 7 and potentially steal some of Apple’s thunder.

Samsung didn’t confirm this was the reasoning behind the launch date, saying instead in a statement, “Timing of any new mobile product launch is determined by the Mobile business division based on the proper completion of the development process and the readiness of the product for the market.” In spite of this statement, it seems clear that the Note 7 didn’t live up to that “readiness” standard.

Bloomberg spoke to Samsung’s suppliers and received some anonymous accounts from employees about the run-up to the launch, and it sounds as though the Note 7’s creation got rushed, even compared to ordinary standards for a time-crunch surrounding the launch of a product:

As the launch date approached, employees at Samsung and suppliers stretched their work hours and made do with less sleep. Though it’s not unusual to have a scramble, suppliers were under more pressure than usual this time around and were pushed harder than by other customers, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. One supplier said it was particularly challenging to work with Samsung employees this time, as they repeatedly changed their minds about specs and work flow. Some Samsung workers began sleeping in the office to avoid time lost in commuting, the supplier said. Samsung declined to comment on whether deadlines were moved, reiterating that products are only introduced after proper testing.

Samsung did manage to beat the iPhone 7 out the door, shipping out early models of Note 7s in August. Before the end of August, however, word about the exploding phones had already begun to go viral online, thanks to videos like this one uploaded to YouTube by a Note 7 owner.

The company has suffered some financial losses as a result of the massive recall of phones, but experts believe that the bad reputation to Samsung’s image will have more significant lasting effects beyond the failure of this one product. Kim Sang Jo, an economics professor at Hansung University in Seoul, put it this way to Bloomberg: “This is a crisis and a blow to Samsung’s image. Clearly there were procedural missteps and the company will have to restore consumer and investor confidence.”

The financial fall-out poses a pretty big problem, too, though, and it might end up securing Apple’s dominance over all things smartphone for a while yet. Well, that, and the fact that the Note 7 doesn’t seem able to keep up with the iPhone 7 anyway, even when it doesn’t explode. PhoneBuff uploaded a speed test between the two phones today, and the iPhone 7 is way faster than the Note 7.

The iPhone 7 isn’t perfect—some users have reported that their iPhone 7s make a hissing noise—but that’s nothing compared to an exploding battery when it comes to potential concerns.ZDNet reports that the iPhone 7 has already had a better-than-expected launch in terms of sales, and analysts believe that Apple’s latest phone will end up selling way more units than initially thought this coming year simply due to the failure of the Note 7. Not having a viable competitor will really help Apple out this year.

Clearly, the old adage that “all press is good press” doesn’t apply when it comes to exploding phones. Now, Samsung will have a whole lot more work to do when it comes to catching up with Apple’s strategy—and meanwhile, Apple can appreciate a successful launch even though the iPhone 7 doesn’t actually have that many new features to offer compared to its predecessors.

(via BGR, image via iphonedigital on Flickr)

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Maddy Myers
Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).