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‘Pure hubris’: Why Samsung and Motorola are releasing unfinished products

Experts say trying and failing in public with folding phones is admirable, but risky.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip is a foldable phone that launched with its fair share of issues.

Photo: Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Samsung Electronics America

Peeling displays. Creaking hinges. Screens that can be damaged by just a fingernail.

The latest foldable phones from major smartphone manufacturers haven't gotten off to a strong start: Both Motorola's nostalgic Razr reboot and Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip launched with their fair share of issues, even with their steep price tags. Samsung couldn't even nail it on its third attempt at a folding phone, after the Galaxy Fold it unveiled early last year had to be redesigned in the fall.

Despite these quite public missteps, companies are forging ahead into the brave new world of foldable smartphones. Experts told Protocol that though there are advantages to conducting public research and development, the companies' hubris could ultimately be a mistake.

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"None of the problems that have occurred actually surprise me," William LaCourse, a professor of glass science at Alfred University, told Protocol about the issues the first few folding phones have faced.

The Motorola Razr uses an easily scratched plastic screen, and its adhesive — reportedly supplied by 3M — was shown to warp the whole screen in cold temperatures. Samsung, meanwhile, touts its new ultrathin glass, produced by Schott, as being "tough, yet tender" — so tender, in fact, that it, too, is covered by an easily damaged plastic layer. Producing foldable displays is difficult, according to LaCourse: For glass to fold, it has to be extremely thin, but making it thin makes it less durable. So why are companies rushing to get this technology out?

Increased competition is pushing smartphone manufacturers into uncharted waters. "The Android players are more under pressure to show something unique, to show leadership, and to improve their brands," Roberta Cozza, a senior director analyst at Gartner, told Protocol. With so much similarity among Android software, it's "hard for them to differentiate" Cozza said, hence the dramatic hardware experiments. For a brand like Motorola with less market share than that of the dominant smartphone players, coming out with something truly different is one of the only ways to stand out.

According to Cozza, releasing early-stage products is a good way for manufacturers to test products in the wild. "It's a way for them to understand what are the problems, and keep on improving," she said.

Kevin Williams, a senior marketing and entrepreneurship lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business, agrees. "You can really only get kind of incremental results from market research; consumers can't predict a breakthrough or a disruption," Williams said. "And so about the best you can do is to throw stuff out there and see how people react to it."

This strategy could be particularly true for Samsung, which wants to license its processed folding glass to other manufacturers. Last year, Samsung's consumer electronics business had an operating profit of 2.61 trillion won, or about $2.1 billion, while its "device solutions" business, which sells displays and chips, made 15.58 trillion won (nearly $13 billion). Samsung can afford a flop in its consumer business, if that flop helps it uncover real-world faults and fix them for its much more valuable corporate customers.

But it's a risky gambit: There's plenty of evidence that first-mover advantages are by no means guaranteed, and Williams says being first is typically a disadvantage. "You wind up taking on the market risk for all your competitors, and they get to learn from your mistakes," he said. In a way, Samsung and Motorola are offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs for later-entrants like Apple who can swoop in once the kinks are worked out.

"The less-than-generous interpretation is just pure hubris," Williams said of why Samsung and Motorola are pushing out these early devices. He argued that tech companies are often run by technologists and engineers "who think they already know" what success looks like. "I'm sure there are people at Samsung that think, 'Hey, we figured it out, this will take off,'" Williams said. "And then it's rejected out of hand by consumers, because they just are looking at different criteria, different definitions of what's better."

Although it can be a questionable business decision, others see the social upside in putting yourself out into the world, warts and all. "I've got to give companies like Samsung and others a lot of credit for just pushing ahead anyway, despite the tremendous costs from an R&D side as well as from a PR side," said Peter Fader, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Someone needs to innovate to succeed, after all, and their work could eventually lead to something genuinely novel.

Neither Samsung nor Motorola were immediately available to comment on their strategy for folding phones.

Corning, which supplies its Gorilla Glass to Apple and other manufacturers, told Protocol by email that it's "actively developing" what it referred to as "glass-based products" for foldable devices, and said it expects to bring them to market "within the next 12 to 18 months." Given Corning's timeline, LaCourse said he thinks "we are less than a year away from an announcement" of a folding device from Apple, but that the company may try to play it safe by debuting a larger device. Rather than an iPhone, a large device — like an iPad — can be thicker. That means the glass can have a larger bend radius, which in turn means it can be thicker and more durable. Apple has also signaled with patents it's filed that this could be the direction it's heading.

It's not just technical problems that experimentation solves. Many of the experts Protocol spoke with noted that there's no hugely compelling use case for foldable phones yet. "For the mainstream user, I really don't see what the value really is," Cozza said.

Beyond overcoming technical problems, these devices need to "demonstrate some kind of wow," Fader said, much like the first iPhone did. They have to show some use case that people will actually want to pay for — one that's not possible with existing devices. This, he says, "will happen, in multiple ways and multiple forms." And it's only through experiments like the Razr and Z Fold that we'll get there.

"We really should be letting a thousand flowers bloom instead of just going out there stomping on anything that looks a little different," Fader said.

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.
Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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