Do-not-disturb on iPhone really sucks (and how Apple can fix it)

Even in 2019, the iPhone's do-not-disturb capability is firmly grounded in the olden days when voice calls were king. And it's unreliable, too.

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My phone rang at 5am again. It was another spam caller on the East Coast. My phone number is Florida-based, so even though I live a bunch of time zones away, I still get calls as if I still lived there. Which means they call at 5am, 6am, 7am -- all before my normal 8am alarm, desperate run to the coffee pot, and slobbery greeting from the dog.

I can't just turn off my phone whenever I feel like it because I have East Coast-based clients and business partners. I need to be able to get their texts, email notifications, and Hangouts pings -- even if it's before wake-up time. That's to be expected. When I moved west I promised the people who depend on me that, if they needed me on their time, they could reach out and I'd be available.

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They do, once or twice a month. This works fine -- except for the spam. See, the thing is, I can't separate the spam from my business partners.

I know what you're going to say. iPhones have do-not-disturb (DND), they now have Bedtime Mode with iOS 12, and they even have the mute switch on the side of the phone. And yes, they also have Block Caller, but if you haven't previously blocked the caller, the spam comes through.

Yes, Apple provides those services. They don't always work. They're incomplete. And they're still based on the mindset of 20th century landline users.

Everything's better with a chart

Let's start with a chart. I decided to get truly anal configuring my phone to solve my problem, so I tested every one of the following options to find out what option would work and what didn't. What I found was disturbing.

DND

Bedtime Mode with DND

Mute button

Mute button with DND

Phone calls

Blocked(1)

Does not block even though DND was on(1)

Blocks calls, but vibrates, if on

Blocks calls, but vibrates, if on

Calls from favs

Does not block

Does not block

Blocks calls, but vibrates, if on

Blocks calls, but vibrates, if on

Text from favs(2)

Does not block

Does not block

Does not block

Does not block

Texts(2)

Does not block

Does not block

Does not block

Does not block

Other notifications

Blocks Hangouts and Gmail

Blocks Hangouts and Gmail

Blocks Hangouts and Gmail

Blocks Hangouts and Gmail

(1) Did let calls through for a while, but after rebooting, it stopped.
(2) Some SMS messages got through, some were blocked. All iMessage texts got through.

One note: there is a do-not-disturb while driving mode that will block texts. But I'm talking about general DND, where your location isn't changing at vehicle speed.

Also, I've read a bunch of articles that say DND blocks texts, but in my testing, I was quite surprised that DND didn't block any texts. I also asked a few other iPhone users to try it out, and they, too were unable to get DND to block iMessage texts.

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I didn't have a large enough sample set to get consistent results with SMS (i.e., non-iMessage texts). I found that some SMS texts did get through, but others didn't. All the iMessage texts sent got through even when DND was enabled. You can selectively block some iMessage contacts and threads (especially useful in huge group texts), but that can only happen once a first text or contact has been received. It won't help for random spam texts.

Do-not-disturb is unreliable

What I found was that do-not-disturb, in its various incarnations, is very limited. Worse, it's unreliable. A quick Google search returned a bunch of other folks reporting similar issues.

DND would block normal (non-favorite phone calls), but only sometimes. If I turned on or off Bedtime Mode, switched on or off the mute button, or just went through my day using apps, DND would sometimes just not block calls. Once I rebooted the phone, DND started to work again.

Obviously, it's not practical to either reboot your phone before bed each night or test whether do-not-disturb actually works. Clearly, this is a bug that Apple will need to fix.

Do-not-disturb is oriented around phone calls

Another major problem is in the way iOS do-not-disturb is designed. It's oriented around voice calls. Even as far back as 2012, ZDNet reported on the decline of voice calls and the growing use of text messaging and messaging apps.

But while (when it works) iOS do-not-disturb will block voice calls, it does not -- in any of its various configurations -- block text messages. You can have do-not-disturb on. You can have Bedtime Mode on. You can even have the mute button on, and if a text is sent (whether from a favorite contact or not), the phone will play the text notification sound.

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I tested this repeatedly, with different phones, and on each I found that texts went through. What's odd is that there have been other times when I wanted to get text message alert tones and I didn't. It turns out that sometimes the Apple Watch can interfere with getting text messages.

Other apps blocked always

I rely on getting a notification sound when I get a Gmail message delivered to my Primary tab. I also rely on getting audible notifications when a Hangouts chat is initiated.

As it turns out, unlike with iMessage, no matter which of the DND options is set, audible app notifications stop. They may show up on the home screen, but the notification tone doesn't play.

That means that while you might (when it works) be able to block phone calls, if you do, you're also blocking Hangouts and Gmail (and other app notifications you rely on) from alerting you.

This is so last century

The app economy has changed everything, including how we communicate. For an OS like iOS to assume that phone calls are the primary thing we either want to block or let through is a 1990s mentality.

What Apple needs to do is completely rethink notifications and do-not-disturb. It needs to allow iPhone users to individually select apps that can punch through DND and issue an alert. Ideally, it should also allow apps to share a global favorites list so favorite contacts can be allowed to alert while other contacts using the same apps are muted.

Right now, Apple's favorites mechanism is not, amazingly enough, in Contacts. You would think that if you had a contact you could declare that person a favorite in the Contacts app. As it turns out, you have to declare your contact a favorite in the Phone app. That should tell you everything you need to know about how backward Apple is in its implementation of favorites and DND.

Sadly, unless you're one of those very lucky iPhone users who can power off your phone at night and not care if anyone needs to reach out to you, the rest of us are going to lose sleep over a do-not-disturb implementation that is disturbingly out of step.


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