The mute switch and the missing feature

In the “what does mute mean” disagreement between John Gruber and Andy Ihnatko I’m generally in agreement with Gruber: having “mute” on a phone mean something other than “no sound under any circumstances” is so valuable it shouldn’t be abandoned. But I’m sympathetic to people in Andy’s camp, mainly because the mute switch on the iPhone is misleading to the unwary.

The heart of the disagreement arises because of software intermediation, which I wrote about a few days ago. People on the Ihnatko side think of the mute switch as a true switch, wired into a circuit that, when opened, cuts all power to the speaker.

Hard-wired mute switch

I’m not saying these people believe the speaker is physically wired this way; I’m saying this is their conceptual model for how it works. This model is wrong, of course, but it’s not hard to see why it persists.

There are five hardware mechanisms on the iPhone. Four of them are momentary buttons that carry no state. The mute switch is the only one that carries with it an indication of its current state. Our experience with analog devices like lamps leads us to believe that the mute switch works as suggested by my cartoon wiring diagram.

But software intermediation gives us the opportunity for a switch to have a richer meaning, and that’s what Apple chose for the iPhone’s mute switch. Several commenters on Andy’s post (and Ben Brooks) have written about a very handy use of the phone’s not-quite-mute button: turning off all sounds from text messages and emails overnight, but still sounding your wakeup alarm in the morning. This is the kind of flexibility that only software can give you, and those who’ve internalized the workings of the mute switch—those who don’t think mute means M-U-T-E, as Andy wrote—get a better experience out of their phones because of it.

On a peripheral issue, Andy’s Case A, in which a user mutes his phone for a meeting or a movie and forgets to unmute it afterward, gives me another chance to point out a particular annoyance of mine: the lack of a timed mute function on the iPhone. A timed mute function would let a user tell her phone “Be quiet for the next two hours and then go back to normal.” I’ve been wanting this on the iPhone ever since I got it. I’ve wished for it on Twitter,

The multitasking app I want is one that mutes the phone for a given length of time. No need to remember to unmute after a movie or meeting.
  — Dr. Drang (@drdrang) Thu Apr 8 2010

and in a Home Screens post at David Sparks’s place

What is the app you are still missing?

I still want a timer app that mutes the phone for a set period of time. I use the mute switch when I go into a meeting or a movie, but I almost always forget to unmute it when I leave. A timer would be the perfect solution. (Maybe there’s one I haven’t heard of?)

The free-with-service-contract Nokia candy bar phone I had ages ago had such a feature, and it was great. That the iPhone didn’t have it right from the start will always be a mystery to me.

12 Responses to “The mute switch and the missing feature”

  1. Clark says:

    I swear there used to be a jailbreak app that did the timed mute along with timed airplane mode and a lot else. I’d look but I’m not jailbroken at the moment.

  2. pmult says:

    I would submit that there is no ‘right’ answer. The fact that I’ve owned iPhones for several years and never knew the mute switched behaved this way just points to the fact that Apple wasn’t clear in its intentions on the function of the mute switch, “rich” or otherwise. Where does one learn that this is in fact how the mute switch behaves?

  3. Gerry says:

    Technically, Apple doesn’t even call it a “Mute” switch. It’s a “Ring/Silent” switch.

  4. Ryan Gray says:

    Interesting that the recent debate about the “mute” switch is about how it doesn’t silence the alarms. I always heard people griping about how it seemed to fail to really mute anything.

    What it does is to mute sounds except for some of those of the foreground app or background audio. If you turn on the “mute” switch and then play audio (foreground or background) or video, you hear sound. Many see this as a fail for the mute switch, but what it’s really doing is muting everything but explicit audio: playing music, a video or an alarm you set.

    The result is that you can turn on mute while listening to audio or watching a video and not have other message alert sounds disturb you other than your alarms. If you want total silence (save for alarms), then don’t play audio or video with the mute on. I turned the mute on while typing this to silence the key clicks since we were watching TV.

  5. Stephen says:

    I agree it’s good that there’s a lot of flexibility possible because of the software abstraction but is there a one button option to just stop all sound on iPhone? Generally when I set a phone to silent I do that because I’m in a situation where I want it to make no noise — ie. the problem is the sound and that’s regardless of if the sound is signalling a call or an alarm. There are situations where, for example, I’m specifically waiting for a call and don’t want to be interrupted by anything else but that’s relatively rarer in my life.

  6. Jim Biancolo says:

    I’d like a timed mute too. In the meantime, it occurs to me that I can set an alarm to remind me to unmute the phone, and that alarm will sound even when muted. That wouldn’t have occurred to me before this whole Philharmonic thing.

  7. Dr. Drang says:

    We can all come up with scenarios in which one behavior or the other will lead to a minor disaster, but I think we can all agree that Apple can’t, at this late date, change the behavior of the switch. Too many people like and rely on the current behavior.

    Apple may provide an option in the Settings to switch between the current operation and “mute means mute” (I doubt it, but there is the iPad precedent), but even that won’t satisfy everyone because some people want finer-grained distinctions between what gets muted and what doesn’t.

  8. Ryan Gray says:

    @Gerry, it seems Apple does refer to the function as “mute”. When I have rotation lock assigned to the hardware switch on my iPad, the silent switch is the soft button in the media control panel (double tap home, swipe left to right). When I then goggle the feature, it briefly displays “mute on” or “mute off” instead of the track name.

  9. Barbara says:

    FWIW, I had Nokia phones before the iphone (iphone 3GS was my first iphone) and there are 2 things I miss about my Nokia phones. There were symbian programs I installed that had timed profiles that muted the ringer, etc AND changed the wallpaper so that I knew visually when a profile was enabled and it was not my standard profile.

    I’m surprised that people did not know how the ring/silent switch functions on the iphone. The fact that I can listen to music while the switch is on silent was the first indication to me that it does not stop all sound.

  10. Clark says:

    I was right. Auto Silence let’s you schedule mutes and control what is muted.

  11. Ben K says:

    @Ryan: That’s probably true for the iPad because it’s not a phone. It wouldn’t make sense to call the function a “ring/silent” switch in that context.

  12. Dr. Drang says:

    Sadly, Auto Silence doesn’t work with iOS 5 (and I’m not inclined to jailbreak, anyway). I guess an app that does what it does can’t make it into the App Store.