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Owners of Samsung smartphones showing their recovery screens on Chinese social media. (Picture: 燥热BANG/-xxCaffe1ne via Weibo)

Why did some Samsung smartphones crash in China on May 23?

Users failed to update their phones to before the lunar calendar’s leap month kicked in

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

When the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000, the Y2K bug -- a calendar formatting glitch in computer systems -- didn’t exactly lead to a digital apocalypse as some had feared. But that doesn’t mean dates can’t cause havok with modern technology, as Samsung smartphone users in China discovered.

It happened on May 23, an unremarkable date in the Gregorian calendar commonly used worldwide. But at midnight, some Samsung users in China suddenly saw their phones crash and go into recovery mode.

Owners of Samsung smartphones showing their recovery screens on Chinese social media. (Picture: 燥热BANG/-xxCaffe1ne via Weibo)
The next day, Chinese media reported long lines outside Samsung service centers around the country, all trying to get their malfunctioning handsets repaired. One alleged user told Pear Video that even though his phone was ultimately fixed, he lost more than 1,000 photos of his three-year-old daughter taken since birth. 
In a Weibo post on Saturday, Samsung said they were aware of system issues affecting some users and were “actively investigating the cause.” The company did not immediately respond to our request for more information on Tuesday. 
So what happened? It turns out that the trigger was a calendar bug in Samsung’s system, according to Chinese Android developers
Social media users post photos of customers lining up outside Samsung customer service centers in China. (Picture: 怪咖栋 via Weibo)

While China has been officially following the Gregorian calendar for more than a century now, the traditional lunar calendar is still used for marking festivals and picking auspicious dates for important life events. Many phone brands cater to Chinese users by offering the option to display dates from both calendars. That feature is also built into Samsung’s Always On Display, which lets users customize their screen to show the time, date and other information even when the phone is sleeping. 


One peculiarity of the Chinese lunar calendar is that it introduces a leap month every two or three years, rather than adding a leap day every four years like the Western Gregorian calendar. Under the Chinese calendar, this year carries a leap month that comes after the fourth month -- known in Chinese as “run si yue” or “leap fourth month.” It began on May 23 -- the day that Samsung phones crashed in China. 

Android developers say even though the Samsung system did account for a lunar leap month in Always On Display, a coding bug means it wasn’t able to find the Chinese word “run” (or “leap”) to show on the screen. This confused the system, causing a crash and reboot loop that ultimately triggered Samsung phones to go into recovery mode. 

Samsung actually fixed the problem in its software upgrade back in June 2019, but some users apparently didn't update their phones. 

Four reasons why Samsung’s smartphones are flopping in China

It doesn’t help that Samsung has been struggling to boost its reputation in the country. Memories of the Galaxy Note 7 debacle in 2016 are still fresh in China, when the South Korean giant came under fire for initially claiming that the Chinese version of the Galaxy Note 7 was safe, even as users said their phones were exploding. 
Samsung, which was once the top-selling smartphone brand in China, has since seen its share of the market plunged to 1%. It trails far behind local giants like Huawei, Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo, which are credited for being more in tune with domestic trends. Last October, Samsung shut down its last phone factory in China