Mute Means Mute

This should be about choices. Please see the updates at the end of the article.

John Gruber writes:

I think the current behavior of the iPhone mute switch is correct. [...] if the mute switch silenced everything, there’d be thousands of people oversleeping every single day because they went to bed the night before unaware that the phone was still in silent mode.

Andy Ihnatko presents an argument for total muting:

No. I should slide the switch to “Mute,” and then the phone goes SILENT. If I miss an appointment because I did that, it’s completely on me. If my phone disrupts a performance despite the fact that I took clear and deliberate action to prevent that from happening…that’s the result of sloppy design. Or arrogant design, which is harder to forgive.

Marco Arment mostly agrees with John:

When implementing the Mute switch, Apple had to decide which of a user’s conflicting commands to obey, and they chose the behavior that they believed would make sense to the most people in the most situations.

Here's my take: Physical settings should always trump and override software settings. If you've flipped a switch, you've told the iPhone something very important, just like when you flip a switch in the real world. When you turn off a light, you expect the lights to go off and stay off. When you hit the mute button on your TV, you expect it to stay muted, even if your favorite show comes on and you miss the first 5 minutes because you didn't hear it.

So unless you really understand how the iPhone works and what specific conditions are required to actually mute the phone, you never really know if the mute switch is a mute switch or just a suggestion that you probably want it to be quiet under most circumstances.

I don’t believe this is what most people want, and it’s certainly not what I want. I don’t want devices trying to be smart unless they can be smart enough to truly understand not just basic (or assumed) if/then conditions, but to fully grok how the human mind works under potentially conflicting directives. We're not there yet. Even HAL had trouble with this.

Here's an example: Say my flight is delayed and I get home and to bed 5 hours late. I flip the mute switch OFF. I now want the alarm to not go off at 6am even though I set it to go off at 6am earlier in the day, before I knew I'd be getting in so late. But the mute switch won’t work like a mute switch in this situation. Your iPhone will say, "You didn't mean for me to mute the alarm even though you muted me right before you fell asleep. I got this. I'm still going to wake you up just like we planned earlier today."

So to really turn off the alarm, I need to swipe to unlock, open the Alarm app, find my alarm, and disable it. I should know this, even though no other phone or device I've ever used behaves this way.

And then when the alarm still goes off at 6am, I'll realize I should have known that the mute switch won’t behave like most mute switches I've used. I've thought about this and to the best of my recall, my other phones and devices mute and stay muted when I tell them to.

When I ask the iPhone to be quiet, I'd really like for it to be quiet and stay quiet until I ask it to make noise again, and I think most people expect the mute switch to mute everything. I want to mute my 4-year-old sometimes. And although my 4-year old understands this, he doesn’t always listen. But because I love him and because he's 4, it’s OK.

I don’t cut my iPhone the same slack.

Update: A number of people on Twitter have pointed out that the mute switch is not actually a mute switch at all, but a "ringer" switch, and they're right. Apple calls it a "Ring/Silent switch" in the iPhone User Guide:

In ring mode, iPhone plays all sounds. In silent mode, iPhone doesn’t ring or play alerts and other sound effects.

Important: Clock alarms, audio apps such as Music, and many games still play sounds through the built-in speaker when iPhone is in silent mode.

Calling the switch a "Ring/Silent" switch helps to clarify its behavior somewhat, and the explanation in the manual should help clear things up (assuming people actually read it), though I'm still not convinced this is the behavior most people want.

Update 2: Know what would be really cool? Let users decide for themselves what the switch does. They could call it a "side switch" like they do on the iPad, and give us choices about what it controls.

Update 3: What this means is that there is no single way to tell your iPhone to just be silent across the board without turning it off. Some apps, like the alarm for example (but many other apps too), will still make noise, and you have to know which ones will make noise and which ones won’t and manually configure them all to be quiet if you don’t want them to make noise in any given situation.

This is what most people want? Maybe, but it seems like a lot to remember when you're heading out on a date.

Some people are saying that if mute meant mute, they'd never be able to use the iPhone as an alarm because of all the other services that would wake them up all night. That's a good point. One answer to this: Airplane Mode. But wait! what if they got an important phone call, they'd miss it! So maybe the iPhone should allow calls to come through even when it’s in airplane mode ...

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