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Of distant dreams and violent delights

Of distant dreams and violent delights
by Don Dingee on 10-05-2016 at 4:00 pm

Another report today of a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 catching fire, this time an allegedly refurbished unit, takes us back to the turning point in Samsung mobile phone history. It’s not the first time a defective Samsung phone – or a pile of thousands of them – has been on fire.

Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-Hee issued a powerful edict to his mobile phone team in 1993: “Produce mobile phones comparable to Motorola’s by 1994 or Samsung will disengage itself from the mobile phone business.” Samsung engineers had been struggling with a multipath problem and inferior signal quality, and set out to completely redesign their SH-700 phone and its SH-770 successor. Quality is a combination of design and manufacturing efforts, however. From “Mobile Unleashed”, p. 139:

What most consumers didn’t see, but Samsung employees felt, was the real quality story. Individual phone screening at the factory reduced problems before shipment, but a massive bone pile of dead phones developed. Lee sent some of the first SH-770s as holiday gifts, getting back reports of some of them not working. Embarrassed by quality escapees, he investigated further – and discovered the bone pile.

In March 1995, Lee visited the Gumi facility where the SH-770 was manufactured. Two thousand employees were invited to a rally in the courtyard, complete with “Quality First” headbands for all. Under a “Quality is My Pride” banner was the bone pile with phones and fax machines from the plant – some say numbering 150,000 units. A handful of workers smashed the defective devices with hammers, threw them into a bonfire, and bulldozed the ashes. Many of those who saw the spectacle wept openly. It was a lesson never forgotten.

I should know better by now: never say never.

 A robot with a nervous breakdown, from HBO’s Westworld

There is no such thing as “good” quality, or “poor” quality. Quality exists, or it is absent, and the judge is the end user, not the manufacturer. We take the existence of quality in electronics for granted these days, after decades of advances in semiconductor, printed circuit board, and packaging and assembly technology. The era where electronic hardware used to fail dramatically mostly succumbed to reliability science years ago.

Failures today are far usually subtler. Software types invented the phrase, “It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.” Fixes are often quietly executed by reloading a new version of code, or perhaps walking back a change gone haywire. Devices magically get well, or at least quit misbehaving to the point where we don’t notice.

Phones catching on fire are hard to not notice. How Samsung has managed to produce a device, and follow up with a hardware fix, and still not solve the problem is absolutely baffling. Maybe there’s a Wells Fargo mentality at work here – ship phones, meet goals, worry later. I’ve found over the course of my career that idiotic behavior is almost always directly correlated to a compensation incentive lurking behind it. What looks dumb to you and me makes perfect sense to someone who has real money at stake.

Quality is a difficult, unforgiving master. Earlier this year when Huawei’s Richard Yu suggested they would pass Apple in smartphones within two to three years, and Samsung in five, many snorted. Now, that once seemingly locked door seems to be opening, inviting Huawei to execute on product and channel strategies. All those concerns about Huawei’s business ethics and intellectual property appropriation may be a distant dream.

Our violent delights – a compulsive need for mobile connectivity and content – now demand satisfaction. If Apple and Samsung can’t fill them, someone else will. There is no access to a previous configuration.

Putting on my black suit and heading back to work …

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