INTERNATIONAL - Like many journalists, I got my hands on a Samsung Galaxy Fold to take for a test drive. But unlike many journalists, my $2,000 device worked as it was designed to do: no screen failures or glitches, minor or major. Others in the hands of high-profile journalists (including Bloomberg Technology’s Mark Gurman) failed almost immediately, leading Samsung to recall its test units early and pull the emergency brake on the launch.
Few would hesitate to call Samsung Electronics Co.’s situation a nightmare. But was it a failure?
To find out, we called up Samuel West, a Helsingborg, Sweden-based clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. in organizational psychology.
His research focuses on how companies can foster cultures conducive to exploration and innovation, but he is best known as the founder of the Museum of Failure, a traveling collection of more than 130 products, each of them offering an often funny lesson in corporate hubris. We spoke shortly after the first problems were reported, and again after Samsung announced an indefinite delay in the release of the phone.
I wanted to know where (and even if) the Galaxy Fold would fit into the collection and what lessons could could be learned from Samsung’s travails.
You must have been excited when you first saw the reports on the Samsung Galaxy Fold?
Of course, as the curator of the Museum of Failure, I do want more objects. But I don’t hope that things fail. I don’t root for failure.
So, no happiness when you watched this unravel?Some schadenfreude is definitely there. Samsung is not a little mom-and-pop outfit that’s like, “We got this really awesome technology, and we’re just a small team, and we were so excited about launching it, and then things went to hell for us.” It’s a massive company. I don’t feel any sympathy when they botch a launch of a massively expensive project.
It kills interest in the technology as well, which is the bigger issue.
What do you think happened here?
We want the new sexy stuff, and companies are just happy to serve it to us, but the downside is when it doesn’t work out. There’s such a pressure on companies to launch their products early, ahead of the competition. The whole idea of launching stuff that’s not mature, that doesn’t work, is full of bugs, etc. That’s not new. And if companies would just reflect and say, “Hey, listen, the cost of not launching early is this, but the cost of messing up a launch is much bigger.” Then maybe they would be more careful about launching stuff that isn't fully functional. There are plenty of historical examples of that.”
Such as what?
The Newton [Apple’s mid-90s tablet] was a total commercial flop. It was embarrassing for Apple. It’s very similar to the Samsung, because it was an immature technology [handwriting recognition] that they launched before it actually worked to customers’ expectations. And that is really difficult to recover from, because you you get one chance, and then it doesn’t matter how good it becomes later on—as the Newton actually did become awesome—but people are still going to judge it as being, oh, it’s that.
It killed not only the actual individual product, it kills interest in the technology as well, which is the bigger issue. Google Glass did the same thing. They messed up launching Google Glass in 2013, saying, “Yeah, we’ve got this wearable technology, it’s awesome.” And it was launched as a consumer product when there was no application and it was full of bugs. It was like an early prototype that they charged $1,500 for. But they didn't tell people it was a wonky prototype. They said, “Ah, the era of wearable technology is here!” And I think that’s the flaw here with the Fold. You have this awesome, cool, exciting, potentially very interesting technology that’s launched before it’s mature, and the response is negative, and it’s really difficult to recover from that.
Samsung, like any other company that launches something new, should get credit for it. It takes some courage to do that.
So what could Samsung have done differently?Besides the obvious of get it right before you send it out for review?
Besides that.Consumers are forgiving if you're transparent. Look at Tesla. They didn’t get much right with their first cars. People were very forgiving, because as a company they said, this is new, this is exciting, it’s expensive, and it’s going to be full of bugs … and you’re part of this. But to say to a regular consumer: Pay for it, and it’s going to work perfectly? That’s a different ballgame.
What can they do now?
At some point, even if the phones aren’t flawed, Samsung will have to—in a transparent, credible manner—say something about it. Not just “We’re going to postpone the launch.” That’s not credible. And then if there are no flaws, address that and say these early reviewers got an early batch that was messed up, and the ones that are in production are good. I think people would buy that.
So is Fold museum-worthy?This definitely belongs in the category of failed launch.
But not abject failure?They did avert a bigger failure, so they’ll get some points for that. It would be much worse had they shipped it anyway, and consumers found the same problems. That would have been an even bigger mess.
Did you see this coming?
I have to be honest with you, when it comes to the Fold, I missed that one. Totally. Because I think the technology is exciting. When I saw the Fold, I thought this is kinda cool. This could actually work. [laughing] This is going to destroy my consultancy career—but as far as foreseeing this failure, I didn’t see that, no.
So, which one did you see coming?
Some products I see and I say, “Man, this is so much going to be in my museum in a couple of years.” For example, remember that Juicero juice press? I remember it so well. I was doing research, getting the collection together, and the Juicero got the first page in the New York Times, like being the most awesome thing ever. And I read that article thinking, “Man, I was wrong,” because I thought this thing is definitely going to flop. And then once it was opened … you know the whole story of Juicero's fall. That happened and I was like, “Yes! I was right!”
Might this Fold fiasco have a chilling effect on innovation?
I think the economic incentives for innovation are far too great for that to be a huge concern, but I do hope that companies don’t just brush this off. I also hope they don’t just say to themselves, we’re capable, we have resources, and it doesn’t apply to us, because that’s wrong. It does apply to them. And if they don’t learn from it, I think they’re bound to repeat these mistakes.
Is there any good news for Samsung in this?Samsung, like any other company that launches something new, should get credit for it. It takes some courage to do that. I mean, look at—look at Apple. They haven't launched much exciting stuff in the past years.
So, Samsung should wear induction into the museum as a badge of honor?
A lot of the companies that are represented in the museum—at first I thought they would be angry with me, saying, “Get our products out of your museum”—but what’s happened is that companies are saying, “It’s proof of our culture of innovation that we have a product in the Museum of Failure.”