It has been nearly a year since Samsung, the world’s most prolific smartphone maker, gave us an exhibition of how not to recover from a mistake. After launching the flagship Galaxy Note 7 device in August 2016 without putting it through sufficiently rigorous quality assurance checks, Samsung found itself inundated with reports of self-combusting Note 7 batteries. It was an unfortunate lapse at that stage, but Samsung made things much worse by equivocating about the causes of the fires, trying to do only partial recalls, and eventually even re-releasing the Note 7 with supposedly fixed batteries that still caught fire. It was the very definition of a corporate fiasco.
Now Samsung stares down the demons of its past with the Note 7’s successor, the Galaxy Note 8, which launches in New York today. This will be the most atypical Note launch in the line’s seven-year (there was no Galaxy Note 6 as Samsung skipped a number last year to sync up with its Galaxy S product numbering) history. In past times, our expectations of the Galaxy Note series have been to see Samsung at its most ambitious and ostentatious: the very best specs available, the most eye-catching designs, and the most grand and splashy presentation possible. But this year, we all want to just see the Galaxy Note 8 survive unscathed by the calamity that dragged down its predecessor. All our hopes and expectations basically amount to: please don’t explode.
Granted, some trolls out there would take delight in being able to reheat their explosively funny fire puns should the Note 8 exhibit more battery issues. Nothing’s so sweet as taking cheap shots at an industry giant, after all, but I don’t count myself among that number. Samsung might sell and ship the most smartphones every year, but that doesn’t mean its supremacy is unshakable. And while people might have been fast to forgive the Note 7 troubles by buying up the Galaxy S8 enthusiastically, it is truly the Note 8 that will be the test of Samsung’s redemption. If Samsung executes today’s launch correctly and delivers tens of millions of Note handsets with reliable batteries and no aberrant behaviors, it will complete the journey of recovering trust in its brand, and it will put a line under the Note 7 as an unfortunate exception.
Make no mistake about it, the Galaxy Note 8 will be one of the most closely scrutinized phones of this year. Like the Galaxy S8 before it, this smartphone will not be getting the benefit of the doubt with any reports of malfunction or failure. Should any pervasive issues of reliability arise around the Note 8, that would create the biggest brand blemish that the smartphone industry has yet known. Samsung would be rightly deemed untrustworthy and reviews of its subsequent phones would have to include mention of the problem that the Galaxy Note 7 started. Everything that Samsung does with mobile devices would be discolored by its failure to produce unproblematic phones.
The Galaxy Note 7 was bad enough in itself, forcing airlines to repeatedly warn passengers about the danger of Samsung handsets (and most were ham-fisted enough to just treat all Samsung devices as hazardous). Also instructive is the experience of Samsung’s most direct rival, Apple, with the Antennagate scandal around the iPhone 4. It was a one-off issue way back in 2010, but very senior people lost their jobs within Apple over it, and it’s still remembered now, some seven years later. These things stick to a company’s reputation, even when it’s as sterling as Apple’s.
That’s why Samsung must get the Galaxy Note 8 right.
Looking at things from a rosier perspective for Samsung, expectations for the Note 8 are as low as any Note device has experienced since the first one. Get reliability right, and few of us will complain about the lack of extra features or differentiation. The majority of people are probably just hoping for a larger Galaxy S8 with a stylus. Samsung’s Note 8 teasers and the inevitable leaks of the device both point to that being exactly the case. Where the Note 7 was Samsung at its most recklessly aggressive as an innovator, the Note 8 looks to be a conservative step of recovering brand trust, adding only a new dual-camera system to the highly successful Galaxy S8 formula.
It’s very likely that tonight we’ll be looking at a new Samsung device that’s a lot like an older Samsung device. The Note 8 is shaping up to be almost the same size and shape as Samsung’s Galaxy S8 Plus, differentiating itself solely with the added stylus and dual-camera capabilities. But so long as the Galaxy Note 8 isn’t like the Note 7, I suspect both Samsung and its many fans will be satisfied with the new large-screen smartphone. We can always ratchet our hopes and expectations back up to unreasonable levels again with next year’s Note 9.