Sounding off on the great iPhone mute switch crisis

Summary:After a ringing iPhone interrupted a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony by the New York Philharmonic, the Mac punditocracy has worked overtime dissecting the user interface of the Mute button and alarm clock rings that can override hardware. It's time to take sides.

After a ringing iPhone interrupted a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony by the New York Philharmonic, the Mac punditocracy has worked overtime dissecting the user interface of the Mute button and alarm clock rings that can override hardware. It's time to take sides.

What appeared at first to be simple inconsiderate behavior turned out to be a more complex story. Patron X said that he had turned off the ringer on his iPhone using the hardware mute switch. It was an alarm clock setting that went off during the performance not a phone call.

He told the paper he had just switched from a Blackberry to an iPhone the day before the incident. He turned the phone to silent before the performance, but was not aware that an alarm on the device had accidentally been set and would still ring.

Several pundits say that this is the correct UI. John Gruber says yes.

However, Andy Ihnatko in a very long analysis says no.

The Mute behavior of the iPhone is just wrong; it’s an important function and its behavior isn’t transparent. The correct answer is so clear to me. Whether the switch silences everything or just some things, the behavior is going to trip people up sometimes. It’s unavoidable. Apple can only choose how users get tripped up. The right answer to most feature design problems the one that puts more control in the hands of the user. If screw-ups are inevitable, then the iPhone should choose to screw up in a way where the user feels like he understands what went wrong, takes responsibility for that mistake, and knows how to avoid repeating it. I shouldn’t be forced to consult a little laminated wallet card every time I slide a two-state “Mute” switch, to remind myself of all of the iPhone’s independent exceptions to the concept of “silence.” I can’t review all pending alerts and notifications to anticipate future problems.

At the Hivelogic blog, Dan Benjamin suggests that a hardware switch should override software settings. However, he points out that Apple doesn't call the button a Mute switch, rather a "Ring/Silent" switch that blocks rings and alerts, but not the result of audio apps such as Clock alarms or even audio from the Music app. So, it's a "silent mode," not "mute."

Benjamin suggests that Apple provide a software slide switch that could turn off all audio.

Here's the thing: Apple keeps giving us stuff that's so smart, like Siri. So why is it so dumb when it comes to muting, silencing or whatever we want to call it?

Why not a rules based Silence app, that knows where you are with GPS (like the opera house or the symphony hall or a church), and can shut up when you're there? It should let you decide about such rings.

In addition, the rules could govern time. I don't answer the phone on Shabbat, why not make Silence understand about the Jewish calendar? It should know that a setting set on the west coast may not be the same on the east coast in a different time zone. Intelligent rings. That's what we want.

And still, the physical switch should override all audio except through the headphones port. It is what we expect.

Topics: Smartphones, Apple, Hardware, iPhone, Mobility

About

David Morgenstern has covered the Mac market and other technology segments for 20 years. In the recent past, he founded Ziff-Davis' Storage Supersite, served as news editor for Ziff Davis Internet and held several executive editorial positions at eWEEK. In the 1990s, David was editor of Ziff Davis' award-winning MacWEEK news publication a... Full Bio

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