It’s not clear how many Note 7 devices actually have a safety problem, but Samsung’s various partners are treating the situation extremely seriously. Oculus, the manufacturer for the Oculus Rift VR headset and Samsung’s partner on the Gear VR, has pushed a software update out that disables all support for the Note 7 in the Gear VR headset.
It’s not hard to see why Oculus would take this step. Lithium-ion battery fires can be extremely energetic, and the risk of having a device strapped to your face explode in flames isn’t a chance any sane person would want to take. Reports from users suggest that the GearVR can get pretty toasty as it is, and while higher temperatures haven’t been directly linked to the Note 7 fiasco, higher operating temperatures can still be implicated in cases of thermal runaway. The phrase refers to a positive feedback condition in which a sufficiently high amount of heat triggers an exothermic (energy-releasing) reaction. The exothermic reaction releases additional heat, accelerating the reaction rate.
As of now, the devices listed as compatible with the Samsung Gear VR are the Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, and the Galaxy Note 5. Oculus’ statement reads:
Samsung has also announced that it has asked all retailers and partners to stop selling the device or swapping it out for different hardware.
This is being treated across the internet as the effective death of the Note 7. There’s no real way Samsung can recover the product after having to do two recalls, and the fact that the company had to take this step suggests that some of our earlier praise for the company was somewhat misplaced. I still think Samsung acted properly in trying to get ahead of the news cycle, but that commendation assumed the company also knew exactly what the problem was and how to fix it.
Right now, there are several possibilities to explain the second recall. Samsung may have properly identified the problem (compression of the battery that leads to short-circuiting) but mistakenly put the blame on a single battery manufacturer when the issue was actually more widespread. It may have misidentified the problem and blamed a short-circuit based on battery compression when the issue is actually some other aspect of the battery’s design, chemistry, or management software. Either way, the fact that the issue wasn’t solved speaks to problems in how Samsung diagnosed it.
That’s problematic for reasons that go beyond the Note 7 itself. The mobile phone market is a cutthroat industry and consumers have come to expect that new devices will arrive on a yearly cadence, even though most people don’t upgrade every single year. But think about what that means. We’ve talked before about the long lead time between when engineers get started working on a product and when that product actually ships. It takes 3-4 years to design a new CPU or GPU architecture from scratch and smartphones have to go through extensive carrier testing before they come to market. The team working on the Galaxy Note 8 is almost certainly well underway already, even though the Note 7 just launched.
Introducing devices on a yearly cadence requires a highly streamlined and fast-moving product pace, even though the companies in question are simultaneously fighting to introduce new technologies with each and every product cycle. It’s not surprising to see some issues crop up here, and they aren’t unique to Samsung — we’ve criticized Apple for its refusal to acknowledge the iPhone 6 Plus’s touch disease or offer meaningful support to the customers that bought that device.
Between the iPhone 6’s problems and Samsung’s Note 7 disaster, it’s not clear this accelerated product cycle is actually improving anything for anyone. Samsung’s problem is more serious. But when the two leading manufacturers in the smartphone industry are both fielding defective hardware, it’s worth considering whether pushing new devices every single year is such a smart idea.