For the past few weeks, evidence has been mounting that all is not well with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7. Multiple mobile carriers have already announced exchange or refund programs and the new phablet has been linked to both a vehicle and a house fire. Now, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a formal statement recommending that owners immediately cease charging their devices and keep them powered off.
So far, Samsung has announced an exchange program, but not a formal device recall. The fact that no recall has been initiated limits what the government can do — the FAA has issued guidelines that Galaxy Note 7s shouldn’t be stowed in luggage or charged on aircraft, for example, but it can’t formally ban the device. Similarly, it remains legal to sell or buy a Note 7 — though given the uncertainty surrounding the product it’s not a particularly good idea. Singapore Airlines has banned the Note 7, while Quantas is requesting people not use them.
Samsung has been dragging its feet on this issue from the start. Last week the company announced it had stopped shipments of the Note 7 and would work with mobile carriers to arrange replacements or refunds for anyone that wanted one. Contrary to what we thought at the time, it didn’t actually announce a formal recall, and only said that such a move was coming in the not-to-distant-future. Today’s announcement by the CPSC is probably meant to underscore the need for immediate action. Samsung has stated that it believes the problem is minuscule, affecting just 24 phones out of every million — but that’s not comforting when thermal runaway in a mobile device can cause third-degree burns or substantial destruction of property.
This is an issue Samsung needs to get in front of, and it needs to get in front of it yesterday. The risk of fire may be small in absolute terms, but high-profile conflagrations tend to play poorly and they certainly don’t do anything to improve sales. If Samsung doesn’t react soon, it could find itself facing lawsuits from consumers who were injured (physically or otherwise) from its engineering mistakes. Left to fester, such wounds can destroy a company’s reputation in a short amount of time.