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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 | Fintech

Plaid’s COO is riding fintech’s choppy waves

He's a striking presence on the beach. If he navigates Plaid's data challenges, Eric Sager will loom large in the financial world as well.

Plaid COO Eric Sager is an avid surfer.

Photo: Plaid

Eric Sager is an avid surfer. It's a fitting passion for the No. 2 executive at Plaid, a startup that's riding fintech's rough waters — including a rogue wave on the horizon that could cause a wipeout.

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Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Protocol | Policy

Bad news for Big Tech: Bipartisan agreement on antitrust reform

Democrats and Republicans found common ground during the first House hearing on antitrust of the new Congress. Here's what that means for tech giants.

The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee held their first hearing of the 117th Congress.

Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

During the first House antitrust hearing of the new Congress, Democratic chairman David Cicilline and Republican ranking member Ken Buck made it clear they intend to forge ahead with a series of bipartisan reform efforts that could cut into the power of the largest technology companies.

"We will work on a serious bipartisan basis to advance these reforms together," Cicilline said during his opening remarks Thursday.

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Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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