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Samsung's Note 7 catches fire, but the damage isn't done

Can it rebuild the bridges it burned with customers?
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When Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 launched earlier in the fall, we loved it. So did a lot of others, critics and consumers alike. Then the reports of battery-related fires started rolling in. Just weeks later, Samsung was forced to kick off a massive recall of Note 7s, a complicated, crucially important process that should have signaled the end of this disaster. It didn't. Now we're left with reports of replacement units going up in smoke -- one of them started smoldering on a Southwest flight, and another put a Kentucky man in the hospital for smoke inhalation. Then, during the writing of this very sentence, Samsung told all of its carrier and retail partners around the world to stop sales and exchanges of Galaxy Note 7s.

It's the move Samsung dreaded, and the move Samsung needed. As dramatic as this seems, though, it's just another step in its fight to piece its reputation back together, bit by agonizing bit.

It's clear enough the company has been trying to do the right thing -- fixing an egregious technical flaw is tricky work, especially on a global scale. But when good intentions and poor execution collide, the aftermath can be all too dangerous. Concerns that replacement Note 7s aren't any safer than the millions of phones already returned have continued to mount, and the count keeps rising, too. The Verge points out that at least five "safe" replacement phones caught fire in the US within the last week, and still other supposed replacements started smoldering in Taiwan and South Korea over the past few days.

That Samsung had to completely halt the flow of Note 7s around the world is a chilling reminder of the battery flaw's reach -- one of the largest, most influential electronics companies on Earth can't definitively say whether or not these phones are safe.

Now, in fairness, neither Samsung nor the US Consumer Product Safety Commission have completed their investigations, and more information should come to light before long. (A Samsung spokesperson told us that the company continues to work with "the US Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate the recently reported cases involving the Galaxy Note7.")

Until then, we can't agree with Samsung more: You should not use a Galaxy Note 7, replacement or otherwise. No gadget is worth this risk. In light of the phone's battery issues, we removed our review score and rescinded our recommendation in early September, and now we can't stress enough that you should use another phone. If you live in the US, our four major wireless carriers will let you exchange a Note 7 purchased from them for a different smartphone, and you absolutely should.

But let's take a moment to pull back from the situation as it stands. What does Samsung's future look like? Financially, not as bad as you'd think ... for now, at least. Launch anticipation for the phone was so high, Samsung had to rejigger international launch schedules to make sure there were enough Note 7s to go around. And after the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge provided a solid financial foundation for the first part of 2016, Samsung was banking on the Note 7 to keep that sales momentum going as it headed into the holidays. Now the company has some extra red ink to deal with: There's the loss of whatever revenue new Note 7s would've brought in, plus the roughly $1 billion the recall was expected to cost.

While not exactly chump change, Samsung has the resources to weather this storm -- that was never the question. The company even issued an earnings preview that highlighted a growth in income because component sales helped to offset recall costs. And Samsung's big mobile business is in selling less expensive phones en masse around the globe, so in that respect the Note 7 situation hasn't yet damaged the chaebol that badly.

Of course, this whole thing has cost Samsung more than just money. There's the crucial matter of trust, and the hard-fought association with quality Samsung has worked to build over several years. With lingering questions of safety surrounding these updated phones, who would choose to buy one for themselves? Or for the people they care about? Even if Samsung swore up and down that they were safe, would you believe it? And could anyone blame you if you didn't? After all, this wasn't some random, low-cost phone Samsung churned out on the cheap. The Note 7 was a flagship device with flagship performance and a flagship price tag -- if Samsung couldn't nail down the quality on one of its most important phones of the year, how does it expect us to trust it enough to build safe new ones?

It doesn't help that Samsung's exploding phones -- while dangerous -- have also become a sort of cultural punchline. Flight attendants specifically warn Note 7 owners to turn off their phones before takeoff; countless memes have been concocted; a GTA mod gives the anti-hero player-character exploding Note 7s to toss. The list goes on. Maybe it's not possible to revive the Note 7 after all. Maybe the right decision is to just give up on it altogether. After all, we're sure to get our first glimpses at the Galaxy S8 before long.

We're weeks into this debacle and there are still so many more questions than answers. Even so, this whole thing is giving us a strangely clear understanding of Samsung's underlying character (as trying times often do). The company has been equal parts sincere and bumbling, concerned and ineffective. Even more tantalizing will be watching how Samsung attempts to reinvent itself when this is all over and the proverbial fire has died down. For now, Samsung, all eyes are on you. Fix this, and be better.

Chris is Engadget's senior mobile editor and moonlights as a professional moment ruiner. His early years were spent taking apart Sega consoles and writing awful fan fiction. That passion for electronics and words would eventually lead him to covering startups of all stripes at TechCrunch. The first phone he ever swooned over was the Nokia 7610, because man, those curves.

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