The video on YouTube was hauntingly familiar. A charred case and broken glass on what was once a smartphone made it clear that something terrible had happened.
The video narrator explained that the charred phone was once a Samsung Galaxy Note7, which had spontaneously burned while the owner wasn't looking.
Samsung executives saw that video too. Then they heard reports of dozens of other Galaxy Note7 devices going up in flames, or even exploding in a couple of cases. Even though a million of the devices were already in the hands of customers, Samsung took the responsible route and recalled them.
Meanwhile, the other Galaxy Note7 phablets already in the pipeline were pulled or removed from store shelves and carriers shut down any sales.
Existing owners of the Galaxy Note7 will have to wait for device replacements presumably for as long as it takes Samsung to solve the battery problem and return the devices to the market. Fortunately for U.S. owners, that may happen as soon as the week of Sept. 9.
In the meantime, they have a quandary, which is what to do with a potentially hazardous phone? Suggestions for proper handling are all over the internet—some practical such as setting it aside and not using it and some not-so-practical such as burying it in sand until you can get rid of it.
For companies that may have put some of these devices into service, the problem becomes one that's somewhat more complex. How do you protect your employees from a hazardous device? How do you protect your facilities from what may be a collection of many potentially flammable devices? What do you do about the business data that may already be on the device while you're disposing of the suspicious Note7?
The problems with the Galaxy Note7 go back to problems with lithium ion batteries, not just in phones, but in a wide range of devices that use power supplies with this battery technology. A few years ago there were videos of burning laptops all over YouTube. More recently, there was a vast selection of videos showing hoverboards burning in fires caused by lithium ion battery packs. Now it's Samsung's turn.
The problem with lithium ion batteries isn't specifically the fault of the technology. The problem boils down to the amount of electrical energy such a battery can hold and the manufacturing tolerances that much be maintained for the battery to safely contain that energy.
The biggest challenge is maintaining chemical purity in the manufacturing process because a tiny amount of metallic contamination inside the battery is all that it takes for the batteries to generate enough heat to burst into flames.
While Samsung isn't saying exactly what happened with the batteries in the Galaxy Note7, likely because their investigation isn't complete, the company does know it's a problem with the manufacturing process. Samsung said as much in the company's official statement, emailed to eWEEK.
"In response to recently reported cases of the new Galaxy Note7, we conducted a thorough investigation and found a battery cell issue," a Samsung spokesperson said in a prepared statement.