Galaxy Note 5, #penghazi, and ‘inserting it wrong’

The S stands for Stuck.

Earlier today on MacBreak Weekly, the long-running podcast hosted by Leo Laporte, Leo was joking about the stories involving Samsung Galaxy Note 5 S-Pens getting stuck backwards in their slots when—you guessed it!—his S-Pen got stuck backwards in the slot. You can see it happen in the video below at around the 49:40 mark.

It happened, I believe, because Leo thought he’s feel some tightness or other physical feedback and be able to remove it before it got stuck. Unfortunately, that’s what it’s getting stuck—there’s nothing to indicate anything is wrong until it’s too late. My friend, and the editor-in-chief of Android Central wrote about it again today. Teeth marks and all.

People are saying "you’re inserting it wrong" in reference to an infamous email from the late Steve Jobs in response to iPhone 4 antenna issues where he asserted people were "holding it wrong". With the iPhone 4 if you bridged the antenna gap on the outside of the phone it would reduce the signal strength by a couple of bars, which meant if you were in an area with bad reception you could lose reception.

"Antennagate", as it became known, required both bad signal and antenna bridging, so going to an area with better signal or moving your finger could alleviate the problem. So could putting on a case, and indeed Apple ended up giving away free bumper cases to every iPhone 4 customer to fully mitigate the issue.

They’re similar in that both could be reproduced. They’re dissimilar in that touching the antenna gap once didn’t stick, break, or otherwise render the antenna permanently unusable. Which, unfortunately, is what appears to be happening with the S-Pen.

Some have also tried to draw a parallel to the largely media-manufactured "bendgate" controversy that followed the launch of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. It required, it seems, people to start a video recording and then apply incredible amounts of force in order to bend an iPhone. Earlier versions of the iPhone too, it turned out. Or any metal phone, really, including those made by Samsung.

There were so few real-world cases of bent iPhones that Apple didn’t have to take any extraordinary actions to deal with them. So, bent phones are similar in that they do permanently affect a phone. They’re dissimilar in that it appears to take no excessive or brute force to stick a stylus. If you simply picked a metal phone up off the table by the "wrong" edge and it bent under its own weight, that would better equate to what’s happening here.

Apple has, however, just this week issued an iPhone 6 camera replacement program for a small percentage of devices suffering from a bad camera component. That’s what companies do.

The issue with the Galaxy Note 5 isn’t the first for Samsung. Last year’s Galaxy Note 4 had a screen gap so big it could double as business card holder. It won’t be their last either. Nor will the camera replacement be Apple’s.

Conversely, some are going after Samsung using Steve Jobs’ "if you see a stylus, they blew it!" quip from the days of the original iPhone as if to show Apple was somehow prescient about pens getting stuck in phones. Nothing of the sort. Jobs was referring to resistive touch screen technology that came close to requiring a stylus in order to be functional. That’s what we all used in the dark days before the coming of the iPhone and the capacitive revolution.

Apple Stores have been selling capacitive stylus pens for years and anyone who’s ever worked in illustration—hi!—will tell you how great pen input is. The Galaxy Note, if nothing else, is an amazingly portable Wacom-style tablet and it’s terrific that it exists.

What’s not terrific is that the S-Pen gets stuck, and that it’s something that could have been avoided with better design. As implemented, it fails secure by locking down. It doesn’t fail safe by letting out.

Imagine with Apple Watch bands, if lugs were inserted upside down into grooves, they became stuck and couldn’t be removed without damaging the parts. Instead, if you try and insert them upside down, they slide all the way through, letting you know they’re being inserted wrong.

That’s what good design does—it protects customers from themselves. Even and especially when they make mistakes. It’s called poka-yoke and in the case of the pen, it’s something that’s been solved since the Newton.

So, yeah, if you’re even thinking about blaming customers for this, or telling them to RTFM, please stop. Just like Gorilla Glass is used to minimize the chances of screen scratches, poka-yoke needs to be used to minimize the chances of a pen getting stuck.

Customers may be making a mistake by sticking the pen in the wrong way, but Samsung made one first but not designing the mechanism in a way that minimized or prevented it from happening.

I’ve already piled on Samsung’s lack of design consideration enough for one year, so I’ll leave it at that.

Except to say this: Apple is rumored to be readying an Pen for use with the also-rumored iPad Pro. It sounds like it might be more of an optional accessory than something built into the device. Either way, I hope the S-Pen issue causes Apple’s hardware design team to be even more thoughtful and considerate about the error-proofing of their products.

And I wish Samsung, and those affected, the very best of luck in getting it resolved to everyone’s benefit and satisfaction.

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