Failure to engage regulators early may have doomed smartphone

Oct. 24, 2016

“The Fatal Mistake That Doomed Samsung’s Galaxy Note” is a headline in The Wall Street Journal, although it’s difficult to pinpoint what that one fatal mistake actually was. As I commented earlier, Samsung reportedly tested its batteries at a CTIA-certified lab owned by the company, while Apple, for example, uses third-party labs.

In the Journal article posted October 23, Jonathan Cheng in Seoul John D. McKinnon in Washington report that after original reports of Galaxy Note 7s catching fire, Samsung found that scans of faulty devices with batteries manufactured by Samsung SDI showed a battery anomaly, while phones with batteries from another supplier (said to be TDK Corp. unit Amperex Technology) did not.

The finding prompted the company to recall 2.5 million phones. Write Cheng and McKinnon, “That decision in early September—to push a sweeping recall based on what turned out to be incomplete evidence—is now coming back to haunt the company.”

They add, “The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees product recalls in Samsung’s biggest smartphone market, is expected to investigate whether Samsung notified the agency soon enough of dangers posed by the device. Samsung’s decision to launch its own recall, bypassing the CPSC’s formal process for a time, may have prevented regulators from figuring out more about the root cause, some U.S. lawmakers suspect.”

Following new instances of overheating of phones using batteries from the alternate supplier, Samsung killed the Note 7 outright, and the company still does not know conclusively what caused some phones to catch fire. Possibilities range from faulty software to a too-small battery case. As a consequence, Samsung has delayed the launch of its next flagship phone, originally scheduled for February.

Cheng and McKinnon quote Stuart Statler, a product-safety consultant and former CPSC commissioner, as saying Samsung should have engaged with U.S. regulators early on instead of pursuing its own recall.

Cheng and McKinnon conclude by quoting CPSC commissioner Robert Adler as saying, “There are few things in life I’m reasonably confident of predicting; one of those is…we’re going to have yet another issue of lithium ion batteries catching fire….”

It’s still not clear to me what was the one “fatal mistake that doomed” the Note 7. Candidates include testing batteries at a company-owned lab, misdiagnosing the original problem, launching a recall based on incomplete information, and failing to engage regulators early.

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