Galaxy Note 7 flameout: Worst-case scenario

The explosion-powered demise of Samsung’s flagship smartphone isn’t just a disaster for the company; it’s a potential catastrophe for the entire smartphone industry.

Galaxy Note 7 flameout: Worst-case scenario
Credit: iStockphoto

As readers are now no doubt aware, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phablet has been on fire lately. Literally. To the point where the Korean manufacturer has given up on fixing the design and killed the entire project. Buyers have been told to stop using the phones and return them in, get this, a fireproof box.

+ Also on Network World: The Note 7 is dead: What Samsung must do now +

Given the Galaxy Note 7’s propensity for spontaneous combustion and Samsung’s inability to definitively fix the problem, the move shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Still, the fallout from Galaxy Note 7 debacle will be felt far and wide, and not just by Samsung and the users and sellers of this particularly flawed device.

Fear the burning smartphone

Here’s the thing. The Galaxy Note 7’s incendiary habits sowed fear among many users, but especially among airlines. In my recent travels to Asia, every flight I took—and I took more than half a dozen—began with printed and spoken warnings against carrying, using and—especially—charging the device on the plane. The notices were emphatic and rose to the same level as the ongoing prohibitions against carrying durian, the insanely smelly tropical fruit that can make a whole airplane smell like a giant gym shoe. 

airline warning sign samsung note 7 Fredric Paul

Airlines in Asia warn of carrying and using Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones

The problem is that while the Galaxy Note 7 is an extreme case, smartphones and other devices powered by lithium-ion batteries have a long history of bursting into flames. According to recent reports, the iPhone is far from immune to this phenomenon

So, while killing the Galaxy Note 7 may solve the problem in the short term, people are starting to worry about possible bans on all smartphones on airplanes. Heck, not just smartphones—tablets and laptops typically use the same type of batteries and could suffer from similar problems. 

Obviously, such a ban would be a big problem for many travelers and a massive headache for the airlines, which have been working feverishly to support mobile device usage on their planes. (It’s much cheaper than installing seatback entertainment systems.) But fires on airplanes, of course, are even more expensive—not to mention, you know, dangerous.

Mobile performance pull-backs?

No one wants exploding smart phones, but what will it take to achieve that? Two things, most likely. And neither of them is good.

One approach will likely be reducing the size and power of lithium-ion batteries in mobile devices. One theory is that the Galaxy Note 7’s problems came from trying to wring every last milliwatt out of its battery. The downside, though, is a body blow to the ongoing effort to boost battery life. That won’t make smartphone users very happy, either. But again, it’s better than having your phone catch fire in your pocket.

The other effect of this firestorm could be to slow the pace of device innovation. Given the lack of big improvements in the iPhone 7, you might think that this process has already begun. Before the fires started, the Galaxy Note 7 was widely praised as perhaps the best Android phone available. After the estimated $17 billion the Galaxy Note 7’s demise cost Samsung, which includes stock losses, phone makers from Apple to Xiaomi may think twice about pushing the envelope on their new devices. And you can bet that they’ll extend and intensify their testing regimens, which could delay new product introductions. 

In the end, the Galaxy Note 7 is much more than a disaster for Samsung alone, or even just the Android community. It’s a significant setback for the smartphone industry, including everyone who makes them, sells them, uses them, makes apps for them or works with them in any way.

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