Galaxy Fold loss could help other foldable phones succeed

Commentary: Foldable phones just took another hit -- it's likely rivals are taking notes.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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After five reports of broken Galaxy Fold review units and an official delay of Samsung's $2,000 foldable phone, Samsung is in trouble. But for rivals like Huawei's foldable Mate X, the rumored Razr flip phone and all the rest, Samsung's pains  with the Galaxy Fold could spell opportunity. 

Samsung's rivals are watching the company's every move, taking notes and assuredly devising their own plans to either to cut and run if buyers grow cold or to extend their own brands as "true" foldable successes by avoiding the Galaxy Fold's pitfalls. 

Samsung, Huawei and Motorola declined to comment. Samsung said 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." 

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 dent, but no major problems.

Close up with the Galaxy Fold's original screen, notch and hinge

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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.

Similarly, Huawei's foldable Mate X is in hot pursuit of the Fold, promising 5G 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 re-envisioning of its Razr flip phone that has a vertical bend. Both could gain from Samsung's setbacks with pointed messaging to reinforce the sturdiness of their designs.

ReadThe Galaxy Fold can't have this one useful thing

Doubt about the Galaxy Fold could help rivals

Samsung has promised to reinforce the screen make its messaging to buyers clearer. Samsung said in a statement on Monday:

"We will take measures to strengthen the display protection. We will also enhance the guidance on care and use of the display including the protective layer so that our customers get the most out of their Galaxy Fold."

If these 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.

Mate X foldable phone: Here's what it's really like to use

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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. 

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. 

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.

The Galaxy Fold wants to be a multitasking machine.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What Samsung can do to help itself

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. 

But 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 Jessica Dolcourt/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.

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.

Originally posted April 23 at 4 a.m. PT.
Updates, 8 a.m. PT: Reflects that Samsung declined to comment for this story; 8:49 a.m. PT: Reflects that Huawei declined to comment. Update at 4 p.m. PT. Update April 24 at 8:25 a.m. PT.