Samsung Still Doesn't Know Reasons for Note7 Smartphone Fires: Report

With Note7 fires popping up, Samsung guessed on the cause before being certain, dooming the model with a second recall.  

Samsung, Note7, Note7 fires, Note7 recall, Note7 replacement, battery fires, smartphones

Even now, Samsung still does not know the exact cause of the more than 100 battery fires and explosions reported in its Note7 smartphones before they were recalled twice since September.

The conclusion, in an Oct. 23 article by The Wall Street Journal, states that a laboratory report about "scans of some faulty devices showed a protrusion in Note 7 batteries supplied by Samsung SDI Co., a company affiliate, while phones with batteries from another supplier didn't" show pronounced bulges.

The problem, though, is that the results in the lab report weren't "a definitive answer, and there was no explanation for the bulges," but the company's executives moved to recall the devices, and then quickly released new supplies of the phones to answer criticisms from users and telecomm companies, the story reported. Quickly, though, the new Note7 devices were also experiencing battery fires and explosions, essentially dooming the Samsung flagship smartphone model and the company's replacement strategy.

A Samsung spokeswoman told The Journal that the company "recognized that we did not correctly identify the issue the first time and remain committed to finding the root cause. Our top priority remains the safety of our customers and retrieving 100 percent of the Galaxy Note7 devices in the market."

In early October, Samsung announced the end of its Note7 flagship smartphone model following more than 100 reports of battery fires and explosions around the world, including about five reports involving replacement Note7s that were supposedly free of the defects in the original models.

The Note7 debuted in late August and quickly was the source of reports about battery fires and explosions. Samsung addressed those initial reports by investigating the devices that had fires and starting its own global recall, and then in September cooperated with U.S. regulators at the CPSC when the agency issued a government recall of a million of the handsets due to at least 100 reports of fires and explosions from consumers.

Several IT analysts told eWEEK that Samsung was in a difficult situation with the product and that its initial reaction to the Note7 fires and explosions set the stage for the debacle that was to come.

"It is undisputable that Samsung rushed to judgment, but we really don't know how strong was the evidence that they had found the culprit," Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said. "Unfortunately for Samsung, the nature of the failure itself made it hard to diagnose the problem."

Because it took some time for the first Note7 phones to exhibit battery problems, "Samsung should definitely not have sent out the 'fixed' model until the company had been able to do more testing," he added. "It is also clear that a quick fix couldn't be relied on because it took a while for the original problem to emerge."

What Samsung should have done, he said, is offered customers a different replacement phone until the Note7 issues were positively identified—whenever that would have occurred—with a switch back to a corrected Note7 after corrections were positively made.

"Best practice is pretty clear: Be transparent, remove the danger, absorb the monetary loss while buttressing your company's reputation for honesty and putting customer safety first, and verify that the problem has been fixed," said Gottheil. "I believe this is going to hurt Samsung sales, especially sales of high-end phones, for several years."

Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, told eWEEK that on one hand Samsung was "being criticized for not moving quickly enough, and on the other they clearly drew some hasty conclusions here that ended up being wrong."

In hindsight, the company "could have waited on the first recall, but would have taken flak over that. Or they could have issued the recall without the replacement devices, which might have been the right thing to do," said Dawson. "The biggest challenge is that such a small percentage of phones suffered from the problem, which made it harder to diagnose."

What remains ahead for Samsung is to accurately find, report and fix the problems that occurred in the Note7 so that customers have real answers about what happened, he said. "If they don't do that, no-one will be able to trust any future device either," said Gottheil. "But if they reach convincing conclusions about the root causes of the fires, then they will be in a position to avoid repeating those issues on future devices."