Primetime: Any Manufacturer Could Experience Batterygate

The battery problems with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 may put an end to not only the Galaxy Note 7 device, but perhaps for the Galaxy Note family - Samsung's second flagship device of a given year. We cannot be sure what will happen with the Galaxy Note 7 now that Samsung have stopped building the device and is requesting customers return it to them via special fire-proof boxes. We still do not know, for sure, what happened with the Galaxy Note 7 but it seems that Samsung UK's early report that a manufacturing error was causing the battery to short might not have been the whole story. The replaced devices are also suffering from a similar problem and at least one investor believes Samsung "cut corners" when designing the manufacturing the Galaxy Note 7. Roger McNamee is the co-founder of Elevation Partners and he believes that Samsung were tempted to cut corners because the modern smartphone market is mature: "And when you get a market that's mature, where sales are harder to come by, the temptations to cut corners increase. So I do think the risk is rising that you'll see things like this from other people."

There are millions of lithium ion batteries made and sold in a huge number of devices across the world, and Samsung's battery issues are by no means an isolated incident - but the frequency is alarming. Smartphones can and do catch fire and no manufacturer is immune from this, but in Samsung's case it is a flagship model the company appears to have rushed out ahead of the 2016 Apple iPhone models. Lithium metal needs careful handling - it is an explosive element after all. The different battery layers must be meticulously and precisely aligned with protective layers between them so that the elements do not come into direct contact. The logic behind McNamee's opinion is that Samsung reduced the separator between different battery components so as to save space and weight, but unfortunately for the Note 7 this turned out to be too thin to avoid keeping components apart. Contact between the two layers causes a short, which in turns causes what battery engineers call a "thermal runaway." Once this happens, the battery overheating cannot be stopped and you have a smoking or destroyed Note 7 (and as we have seen, an evacuated airliner).

Samsung's problem is two fold. One is that the huge majority of manufacturers successfully avoid thermal runaway incidents and second, Samsung appears to have tried to downplay the issues with the Galaxy Note 7 device. Consumer confidence has been shaken in the Galaxy Note product family. This is not to say that it will not recover, but it is impossible to judge how things will shape out in the coming months. We have a large number of manufacturers chasing a stagnant market, especially in the developed smartphone markets. Arguably, weaker consumer confidence in Samsung could be a good thing for the Android industry if other manufacturers are ready to promote their own devices: otherwise, Apple may enjoy improving sales of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

Samsung's "batterygate" has highlighted the temptation, or some might see requirement, for manufacturers to constantly push the edge of the design envelope. Consumers want, or are told that they want, the very latest in the thinnest, fastest, highest resolution and highest storage of devices and this means that every year the device design is refined and honed. Smartphones are still getting thinner and engineers and designers are constantly coming up with new ways to reduce the profile of components. Reducing the thickness of a smartphone battery without reducing the capacity is an easy win for keeping the overall device thinner. Batteries are of course tested for defects and effectiveness, so perhaps the problems with the Note 7 have demonstrated either a manufacturing or industry testing failure? Did Samsung simply push battery innovation too far in the hope of shaving off a millimeter from the device thickness?

The problems with the thermal runaway battery could have happened to any company: other manufacturers have similar design and engineering objectives as Samsung. To date, we've no reports of multiple competitor devices suffering from the same issue and we've seen a number of especially thin devices being released in the last few months, with the Motorola Moto Z taking center stage. Cheryl Cheng, a partner at BlueRun Ventures, believe that the problem could have happened to any company given the scale of change we've witnessed in our portable electronics. "In a very short amount of time, we have gone to using smartphones and laptop computers to essentially having a computer in your pocket. So that pace of innovation has been very, very fast — faster than any other computer platform." Let's not forget that the modern day smartphone has only been in existence for ten years (earlier models were substantially less refined). Perhaps the problems with the Galaxy Note 7's battery might cause the industry to take stock to keep components safe and not to push new hardware developments so hard.

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.