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Blazing Samsungs, or how not to handle a product return

Jon Gold | Dec. 16, 2013
Android Roundup: Plus, safer texting through encryption, an evil flashlight, and let the unlocker's ball commence!

Just picture it you're walking down the street, not a care in the world, when suddenly your pocket starts to get warm. Have I left one of those hand warmers in there? Is a friend pranking me with a powerful laser? Where would my friends get a powerful laser, anyway? Why don't I have one?

And then this mental enquiry is disrupted by the battery on your smartphone bursting into flames, giving you with a nasty burn on your thigh, no way to get in touch with anyone for advice, and leaving only the embarrassment of having torn off your pants in public to avoid having to touch the blazing device.

OK, that's certainly not what seems to have happened to at least a couple of Samsung Galaxy S4 users this week, but the tales of smoking and burning phones are disturbing nevertheless. A pair of reddit users both reported their devices getting burnt while charging, apparently rendering them unusable.

One would think that Samsung's first reaction would be "oh, gosh!" (or whatever "oh gosh!" is in Korean) "this is a potential publicity disaster for us. Let's save as much face as possible by overnighting these people brand-new replacement phones right away." But one would be wrong.

In one case, Samsung's response was to offer the victim a replacement phone if and only if he agreed to take down a YouTube video (minor NSFW language, if that sort of thing bothers you) showing the charred charging port and partially melted cable.

The user, Richard Wygand, did quite the opposite, posting a second video in which he lambasted the company's tactics in trying to hush up the incident:

He's also posted a pastebin of the demanding letter he received from Samsung's lawyers here.

To put it bluntly, this is a stupid, callous and irresponsible policy on Samsung's part. Faulty lithium ion batteries are very dangerous indeed, potentially causing house fires and emitting toxic smoke. The company might not have liked the PR fallout from having to publicly replace smoldering Galaxy S4s, but I can't imagine it would have been any worse than what's happening now.

It's important to remember, of course, that it's far from clear whether this is a couple of freak accidents or a symptom of a larger issue with Samsung's hardware. The company has sold tens of millions of Galaxy S4s, and no obvious outbreak of fires and failures has swept the globe. But this makes it all the more mystifying that Samsung would react in such a paranoid and feckless manner to what are, in all likelihood, isolated incidents.


Arrestingly named security guru Moxie Marlinspike's company, Whisper Systems, announced Monday that its TextSecure protocol would be integrated into future versions of CyanogenMod, the most popular after-market Android firmware distribution out there. The encryption, which will protect all SMS messages sent among TextSecure-enabled devices from interception and compromise, now has 10 million brand-new users.


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