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A Disaster Is Unfolding in Consumer Tech

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty

TThe weirder the tech, the longer you should wait to buy it. It’s a well-worn piece of advice that faded in the smartphone era, as our handheld computers conformed to a rectangular standard and companies like Apple encouraged us to upgrade them every year, as if buying an iPhone X was equivalent to a teeth cleaning. Then the market flooded, and phones got boring, so buying new ones no longer seemed like much of an event. That, along with declining sales, has spurred an innovation race for manufacturers around the world looking to cash in on the next big thing.

Enter Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, a kind of metal and glass taco that could define a new category of personal device — provided the company can get the thing to work. Several tech writers accidentally broke the gadget’s foldable display shortly after receiving review units, which led Samsung to delay the Galaxy Fold’s launch indefinitely. On Monday, the company said it would provide an update in the “next few weeks.” (Samsung’s official preorder link for the Galaxy Fold now leads to a 404 page.)

But even if Samsung eventually says it has worked out the kinks, you shouldn’t buy one. Not yet, anyway. There are the obvious problems that go beyond the breakable display. The Galaxy Fold is gut-blastingly expensive at $1,980, and review units contained design flaws that were revealed in a teardown by iFixit. (Facing pressure from Samsung, iFixit later removed its examination “out of respect” to the partner that leaked the phone.) But let’s say you buy the thing when it launches: What happens if you drop it on its foldable face and break that sucker? Experts tell OneZero that new foldable screens created by OLED manufacturers could take up to three years to hit the market, if they do at all.

Even if Samsung eventually says it has worked out the kinks, you shouldn’t buy one. Not yet, anyway.

“That’s probably the biggest inherent risk in the Galaxy Fold — a consumer drops it and the screen cracks, and they’re like, ‘Oh no, I have to get a new one,’” says Matt Zieminski, who serves on the board of directors for the Repair Association, a group advocating for “right to repair” legislation around the United States. “I would say probably within two to three years, we will see aftermarket screens, especially if you see other manufacturers jump into this game of foldable OLED technology.”

In fact, the foldable screen market may depend on one Samsung rival in particular, according to Shay Kripalani, CEO of Injured Gadgets, a major distributor for electronics repair parts.

“Unless Apple joins the whole foldable device bandwagon, I don’t even see people ever coming out with aftermarket panels for these,” Kripalani says. “There’s not enough of a demand for it.”

That’s not to say it will be impossible to fix a Galaxy Fold, of course. “Aftermarket” refers to spare parts created and sold by third-party manufacturers, generally on an unauthorized basis. There’s money to be made in supplying screens, given how complicated they are to construct and repair correctly. Kripalani explains that Samsung will release “service packs” with new screens to authorized repair shops, so you’ll be able to get a tune-up even without a thriving aftermarket.

But you’ll pay dearly for it.

Samsung’s current screens are already pricey. I called up three repair shops in Lincoln, Nebraska — an arbitrary Midwestern location that wouldn’t benefit from major population centers on either coast — to see what they’d charge to fix a busted Samsung Galaxy S8 screen. The device is two years old; repairs would run you $250 at two shops and $219.99 at the third. In some cases, you could get a fully refurbished Galaxy S8 for less.

“The screen’s just expensive,” said one of the clerks, who wasn’t asked to speak on the record.

In fact, for all the talk about more powerful processors or gorgeous selfie cams, screens are generally the most expensive part of any phone. As Bloomberg explained in a feature on the parts within an iPhone, the iPhone X’s OLED display — which was manufactured by Samsung — cost $110, “almost twice as expensive as any component ever used in an iPhone, according to IHS data.” As a point of comparison, the device’s heavily promoted A11 Bionic chip had a price tag of $27.50.

That iPhone X example is even more instructive than it may first appear: Immediately after its release, manufacturers had a difficult time creating aftermarket OLED screens that fit the device, which led to an iffy solution.

“Aftermarket manufacturers started producing LCD screens that you could use in an iPhone X. It wasn’t the exact same tech, but it was a compatible alternative. By nature of the technology in the screen, it was substantially less expensive than an OLED and easier to produce,” Zieminski says.

LCD displays are generally thought of as lower quality than OLEDs, particularly when it comes to color brightness and viewing angles. (You can see for yourself in this comparison video.) Not everyone will care or notice, but that’s not really the point: Without other viable options, aftermarket manufacturers produced a stopgap that fundamentally altered the nature of the iPhone X.

Swapping the iPhone X’s screen. Credit: Sam Lionheart/iFixit

All of which is to say that unconventional displays like those in the Galaxy Fold or iPhone X are both expensive and difficult to make, limiting your repair prospects if you adopt early. The curved screens of recent Galaxy devices tend to stay expensive, and the Galaxy Fold will no doubt have the same problem — Zieminski guesses that the first displays in the Fold aftermarket could cost $1,000 or more. (A company representative did not respond to questions about the Galaxy Fold’s repairability or what repairs would cost consumers.)

But say this doesn’t matter much to you: You’re confident you won’t break your phone, despite the flaws that existed in the review units, or you have enough money to pay whatever Samsung wants you to for a replacement. Beyond the issues of price and parts, the current state of affairs arguably presents a more existential issue.

Whose Fold is it, anyway?

The bigger problem may be what the Galaxy Fold represents: a device that may never truly be “owned” by the person who bought it.

Ownership is a tricky thing in the world of consumer tech. I would define it, generally, as having the freedom to do whatever you want with the item you’ve paid for, within reasonable legal limits. I would say you should be able to open a device, replace its parts, and close it back up without a company’s permission. Take the phone you’re reading this on: If you wanted to and knew how, could you fix it yourself? Could you take it to a repair professional that’s unaffiliated with the corporation that designed and shipped it? The answers are rarely a clear yes.

Three years ago, if you took your iPhone to be fixed by a third party, it may have been bricked by Error 53. Apple had integrated a software check into iOS that would disable a device if it detected that its home button (and, by extension, its Touch ID sensor) had been tampered with or replaced. Similarly, Android phones often contain diagnostic software from their manufacturers that can detect if a device has been “rooted,” a process that allows the user to access and alter core system code. It’s unclear if diagnostic tools have ever blocked access to hardware features, though people have complained that their cameras stopped working on HTC and Moto devices after rooting, and Samsung has apparently disabled its Health app on rooted phones.

The bigger problem may be what the Galaxy Fold represents: a device that may never truly be “owned” by the person who bought it.

Manufacturers typically claim that these measures are implemented for security reasons, but the point is that your phone remains controlled to a significant extent by its manufacturer even after you buy it. A diagnostic tool could theoretically detect an aftermarket Galaxy Fold screen and disable your phone outright, as we saw with Apple’s Error 53.

Though a group of consumers brought a class action suit against Apple in response to Error 53, a judge dismissed the case, suggesting that, for now, the corporation behind your smartphone can continue to exert its will over the gadget even after you’ve paid for it. See also: the software that monitors your iPhone’s battery health and throttles its performance when the component degrades. Samsung has been fined over the same problem.

However unexciting they’ve become, smartphones are still complicated pieces of machinery with complex software built in. Manufacturers have a vested interest in mystifying how they work, which has often meant lobbying against proposed legislation that would help independent repair shops and consumers access the resources they need to fix their gadgets. It has also meant coding software that stops working when the hardware is changed. The innovation in the Galaxy Fold’s display will make the device difficult or even impossible for a third-party repair shop to fix, particularly in the first couple of years, when it’s unclear that foldable screens will actually catch on. (You’ll want to note that Samsung’s default warranty covers a phone for only one year.) And we don’t know whether the device’s software will create locks or other issues in response to aftermarket parts — it certainly could.

Meanwhile, “right to repair” legislation is gaining some momentum on the national stage. Though Apple scored a victory against a related bill in California on Tuesday, making the argument that consumers might injure themselves on an iPhone’s battery if they could open the device, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has proposed a national right-to-repair law focused on farming equipment that could set a precedent for other technology. The New York Times editorial board recently endorsed right to repair for consumer gadgets.

In a sense, the Galaxy Fold won’t be much worse for consumers than any other smartphone — provided it actually works — but it certainly distills all of these problems in one convenient package. An expensive, faulty screen that only Samsung will be able to reliably fix for the first couple of years and an unclear path forward for third-party shops. If you buy this, you’ll want to get comfortable in Samsung’s world, because you’re taking a long-term lease there.



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Damon Beres

Co-Founder and Former Editor in Chief, OneZero at Medium