Daring Fireball: On the Behavior of the iPhone Mute Switch

This is probably my favorite kind of discussion of a tech product or feature: the philosophical kind. Why isn’t there an LTE version of the iPhone? Answer: because with the currently available chipsets, the added speed of 4G isn’t worth the tradeoff in battery life.

Boring. Next?

Why does the iPhone’s “Mute” switch silence some alerts but not all of them? Is that wrong?

Well, gee, I don’t know. I suppose it depends on what you believe the natural mindset of the user is. And, how a device can best support its user. Should it do what the user asks, or what the user would ask it to do, if he or she knew such a thing were possible? Because…

Ahhhhh. That’s much better! Wait here in the living room…I’ll be back with a bottle of claret and a few glasses. In the meantime, switch off the Xbox so we won’t have any distractions during what I’m certain is going to be an awesome discussion. Wait, I’ll even silence my iPhone so that we won’t get interrupted…

Oh, right.

So that’s why I’m moved to post my own thoughts about this Daring Fireball piece. I think Brother Gruber is wrong when he says that Brother Jim is wrong. John’s point is that the iPhone handles the Mute switch in a friendly and sophisticated way. The iPhone doesn’t treat it like a modal function (speaker is on, speaker is off). The iPhone does a contextual mute. It’ll mute any alert that you didn’t specifically tell it to make. You weren’t expecting a phone call to come in at 8:31 PM. It mutes the ringer. You told it to sound an alarm at 7 AM the next morning. The iPhone wakes you up as scheduled.

That’s a reflection of a valid specific philosophy. I just think it’s wrong in this specific feature. The key question to ask is “When the user slides the switch to ‘Mute’, what does he or she think is going to happen?” They’re most likely to think that their iPhone will be completely silent until they flip that switch back.

I also try to think about how the user will react when things go wrong.

Case “A”: he Mutes his phone before a movie. He forgets to reset it afterward. His morning wakeup alarm vibrates instead of making air horn noises, so he oversleeps. He’s late for work, and misses an important meeting.

Case “B”: he Unmutes his phone after the movie and gets to the meeting on time. His boss tells the 20 people present that she needs everyone’s full attention and she asks everybody to mute their phones and please close their laptops. Our man duly flips the switch. At 10:30 AM, just as his boss’ boss is about to make an important point, his iPhone starts quacking to remind him about an eBay auction that ends in 15 minutes. He had totally forgotten that alarm…he set it almost a week ago.

In both scenarios, his iPhone has royally tripped him up. In both scenarios, he’s going to walk back to his office — hopefully not carrying an empty cardboard box and accompanied by someone from HR — and he’s going to immediately have a frank discussion with his iPhone.

“What the hell, man?” he says, as soon as the door’s closed. “I thought you were supposed to be on my side!” he says.

In Case “A”, the iPhone replies “Dude. You told me to be quiet and to stay quiet. If you wanted me to stop being quiet, you had every means and opportunity to do so. You just had to slide the exact same damned switch! You wouldn’t even have had to wake me from sleep! The switch is even marked in orange!!! Nothing else on any Apple product is marked in orange!!! So, gee, Einstein…you think maybe the day-glow orange was warning you that you’d enabled a mode that could have had unexpected, but easily-predictable consequences?”

In case “B”, the iPhone says “Oh. I thought you meant ‘Just be mute in some situations but not others’. No, I didn’t bother telling you what situations those would be. I do that sometimes. I’m a very people-oriented bit of engineering. I were a dumb device, I’d just observe the state of the switch and do exactly as I was told and never use my own discretion at all. Oh, and: not that you bothered to thank me for waking you up on time this morning despite the fact that you’d left me on ‘Mute’, but you’re welcome.

(Of course the iPhone wouldn’t actually say these things. The user would be so angry that the phone would still be on “Mute.” But the iPhone would definitely be thinking them.)

My philosophy is “It’s much better to be upset with yourself for having done something stupid than to be upset with a device that made the wrong decision on its own initiative.” Every time I screw up and take responsibility for my own stupidity, it’s another Pavlovian stimulus that encourages smarter future behavior. If I forgot to unmute my phone after a movie, I’m a dumbass. But if my iPhone makes noise during the movie despite the fact that I’d deliberately chosen to silence it, I can only conclude that the dumbasses in this equation reside about 3,000 miles west of here.

I can’t give Apple a free pass on this. I was just as upset with an Android phone I once tested. I was getting a demo photo inside Bates Hall, the gorgeous, cathedral-like reading room at the Boston Public Library. I put the phone on “Mute”, I walked quietly to my desired position in the middle of the room, I tapped the shutter button…and then a maximum-volume CLICKKKK!!!!! resounded and reverberated through the cavern walls.

I felt like a total hayseed. “Stupid piece of crap,” I muttered, as I tried my best to adopt an apologetic facial expression and slinked away. Yes: this phone, at that moment, was a stupid piece of crap and I felt, correctly, that none of the responsibility for this screwup was mine.

Great technology locates a sweet spot between anticipating your intentions and only doing exactly what you tell it to do. Apple’s very good at this but like any company, they succeed and they fail. Apple’s most notable successes and failures usually spring from the same basic company mindset: “We know what the customer wants better than the customer does. After all, the customer doesn’t spend every working hour of the day thinking about how to make a great phone.”

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 screwups 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.

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.

“Why not switch the phone off when you need complete silence?” comes the counter-argument. That’ll certainly work. But if you’re claiming that the Mute switch’s current behavior is correct, shouldn’t you argue that the iPhone should refuse to shut down if there are alarms and reminders scheduled?

You see where this line of thought leads? Straight to that scene in “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide” where a hundred passengers on a commercial spaceflight are kept in suspended animation for centuries. The computer that operates the flight is awaiting a shipment of moist towelettes for the courtesy and comfort of the passengers. It’s the ultimate example of a computer preferring to do what it thinks its users want, instead of just doing what the user asked it to do.

No, I’m fine with Mute meaning M-U-T-E. Particularly if the phone defaults to “vibrate” when muted. But the right answer seems clear. The iPhone must never let a user down the way it let down that man at the philharmonic.

During those endless moments when the conductor and members of a 40 piece orchestra and the 600 people in the audience were fixing him with icy glares of utter hatred, and he frantically clicked and re-clicked the “Mute” switch on his quacking iPhone to no effect, and he was desperately trying to convey that goddamnit, he put this thing on Mute before he even sat down…yes, the iPhone was a stupid piece of crap.

I almost never say that about my iPhone or iPad. This problem is so easy to fix. Even something as simple as a Settings option (“Mute switch silences all alerts”) would do the trick. You don’t have to ask me what the default setting should be.

96 thoughts on “Daring Fireball: On the Behavior of the iPhone Mute Switch

  1. Smit

    How about a three-position Mute switch? “All Sounds,” “Mute Except Alarms,” and “Mute All?”

    Eric: Dude, you don’t have to read Andy’s blog. Just get on with your life annoying your teachers and parents.

  2. Tim Breen

    I feel bad! My iPhone 4S doesn’t even HAVE a “mute” switch. It just has a switch to silence the ringer. It’s called the Ring/Silence switch. So I can’t really expect my phone to be muted while it’s turned on.

    See http://tinyurl.com/8y2bc5t for the image on Apple’s web site.

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  4. pwb

    Andy and all his clown supporters are dead wrong.

    First, it’s not called a “mute” switch. Apple refers to it as the “ringer” switch. A 3-way slider would be idiotic. Sound profiles even more idiotic.

    Case A would happen all the time and be potentially disastrous. Case B is contrived, silly and inconsequential.

    The way Andy wants it to work would render the alarm clock, a terrific feature, totally useless. Even for people who only occasionally silence their ringers (unlike me and many who always silence the ringer).

  5. Robert Emslie

    I’m adamantly fixed in the “don’t want to be disturbed by SMS nor phone calls during sleep but definitely want to hear the wakey-wakey alarm” crowd, mute-wise, following the rule of “sleep sacred, punctuality golden”. In that regard, muted iPhone behaves exactly as all previously owned cellphones, as I want and need. No beef here.

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  7. Pierre

    As a side note, I’m an app developer (educational kids apps) and everyday I’ve got emails because people doesn’t have sound. Most of them say that they have sound on other apps (like youtube) which is true since all apps are not muted via the mute switch.
    Most of my users are on iPad and on iPad alarms are not used a lot, so it does not make sense to have a contextual mute on iPad from my point of view. A global mute would be better – at least for my users.

  8. David

    I only use the clock app for alarms I want to make noise regardless of mute switch. Reminders go in their apps, calendar items in theirs and they respect the mute switch.

    So your scenario B Andy the guy should use reminders or calendar for his eBay alert so it would vibrate only.

    This has to all be on the user to understand how the phone works no?

  9. Stephen

    @ Eric, the way our generation works is that our whole lives are on our smartphones. Every number, SMS, instant message, email and email address, every scheduled appointment, media, tools (phones=calculator etc) are all on a phone. You can’t turn that off before a meeting.

    If you turn your phone off before a meeting and during the meeting someone asks you for Bob from HR’s number you’re not going to have that information for an awkward minute or two while you turn your phone back on.

  10. Stephen

    @Khürt Williams, In Option C the previous meeting runs late so he really misses the second meeting because he’s still in the first meeting, right?

  11. Josh

    Plain and simple: I want the alarm on my iPhone to wake me up each morning, but I do not want to wake up to the random phone calls, emails, and text messages I receive while I am sleeping. Apple designed the Mute exactly how I want it to work for me.

  12. Dave Bittner

    If any app can override the mute switch, then every app can override the mute switch, yes? And this means I have to check every app that may be capable of making noise if I really, truly, actually want the damn thing to, you know, mute. And that makes the device untrustworthy.

    If the hardware mute switch can’t be given absolute power over all sound coming out of the device, why have it be a hardware switch at all? If, after setting the hardware switch to Mute, I still need to slog through a bunch of app settings to disable a bunch of overrides, why not have the master mute be software as well? I can’t imagine Sir Ive complaining that he got that real estate back from the blight of an actual switch.

    At the very least, give us the option of having the mute switch mute everything, no exceptions. And make that the default.

  13. Gib Wallis

    I agree that having options would work. And like the idea of sleeping through email but not alarms.

    But the jerk at the concert should have turned his phone off. He shouldn’t have been texting or emailing while at the concert because the light would disturb and distract people. He shouldn’t have been photographing or videoing or recording the concert.

    He had no need of his phone.

    This is still a social engineering problem.

    We need to fix the jerks more than the tech.

  14. drew

    People who are complaining that they don’t want to be awoken as they sleep and thus they mute their phone, yet still want their alarm to sound are DOING IT WRONG.

    The simple solution, provided by the device, for this and many other scenarios is… Airplane Mode.

    Don’t want to be disturbed by the outside world? Cut it off — turn off your Wi-Fi connection, 3G connection, and be alone. It’s a great feeling, that peace and quiet. Sleep tight.

    Why is this so hard to understand?!

  15. Reid


    Bingo. The mute switch performs exactly as I expect it to and as it should. And it’s not like it’s hard to tell if there is a pending alarm – it shows up in the task bar if there are any active, upcoming alarms. AFAIK nothing expect Clock.app is capable of overriding the hardware mute, so other posters are off base in their complaints.


    You are mistaken on two counts:
    1) Airplane mode is pretty self-explanatory. It’s for airplanes. If it’s intended purpose was what you describe, it would be named accordingly.
    2) Airplane mode doesn’t solve the underlying problem: local apps can still make noise. Calendar and Reminder are two examples of apps that will push alerts (and sounds) without an internet connection. So airplane mode is not a solution.

    At the end of the day, blaming the phone is silly. The failure is on the user for not understanding how the phone works. I’ll agree that the mute switch is somewhat counterintuitive, but in the long run, its behaviour makes sense. The user just needs to understand its function.

  16. Jeff Bigham

    clear situation where your way is broken, and in which no user intervention helps: bedtime.

    you unmute the phone to allow the alarm to play, but that means every alert (tweet, text, call, etc) comes through and wakes you up. or you mute it so you can sleep, but then you don’t hear your alarm.

    what you seem to really want is maybe two buttons? you already have them — the second button is the buried in the alarm menu. apple chose to trade simplicity for easy access to this second button, given i think a quite reasonable assumption that the situation you described above is pretty rare.

  17. drew


    Nope, I’m not mistaken. Airplane Mode solves every problem that everyone has complained about in this thread. Now I’ve carefully read through all of the comments and I fear for the future of humanity. It is SO simple. Even a developer i highly respect (Matt Rix — get Trainyard now!!) has commented in this thread showing he’s on the dumbo side of this issue.

    The only problem seems to be your #1, that Airplane Mode isn’t named clearly enough for Joe iPhone to understand how to use it.

    Airplane Mode cuts off all external communication. Some say no man is an island, but they are wrong — you are now alone in the world, left to your own devices.

    No friend or stranger can interrupt your sleep or other pursuit.

    The fact that Calendar and Reminders still work in Airplane Mode is the SOLUTION, not the problem!! That way you can just simply put it in Airplane Mode and rest easy, confident in the assurance that all your programmed alerts will rouse you at the time appointed.

    Mr. Ihnatko is 100% right on this issue. User intent is sacred. Mute means mute. That is the expected behavior. Better for the user to take responsibility and blame himself than to blame the gadget for not working as instructed.

    I agree that blaming the phone is silly, except when the phone is made wrong. As it is in this (rare) instance.

  18. Cannon

    Mute means mute. Have you ever heard of a mute person who can speak only certain words? No nor have I.
    That Gruber dork defends the design. He would defend rancid puss spurting from the mic every time the phone rings if he had to.

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  20. Mark Freedman

    Coincidentally, I’ve thought about this a lot, lately. I’ve become thankful that my morning alarm still sounds when my iPhone is muted. But it is a PITA for other reminder alarms I set throughout the day.

    I strongly believe there should be an option when setting the alarms: “ignore mute setting”. It’s one simple extra option that most people would understand — especially if THAT is the default setting. If people understand their phone enough to know what the mute button is used for, they’ll understand this option.

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  22. Cameron

    I like the current method. When the mute button is switched on, other audio, such as the audio from a YouTube video can still be heard. Once again, this is because we wanted this audio to play. Other unexpected tones will be silenced.

    This is similar to how the iPad performs. People, including myself, complained when Apple changed the switch on the iPad from an orientation lock to a mute switch. We wondered, “Why did they make that the mute switch when we can just hold down the volume buttons and it quickly silents all audio?”

    Now I understand why. The mute switch is to silence unexpected tones, like alerts.

  23. Che Tamahori

    I’m happy with the current functioning of the Mute switch on the iPhone.

    But I’d like to improve it by enabling it to kill all sound if activated _after_ sounds start playing.

    Right now, if you do end up with a sound you don’t want (eg: a timer or alarm), you have to interact with the screen to turn it off.

    If I could just toggle the physical mute switch to kill any sounds currently underway, it would make it easier, quicker and less embarassing to kill the sounds.

  24. Jcmw

    “iPhone does the contextual mute. It will mute any alart that you didn’t specifically tell it to sound.” it makes absolute sense and it is the problem I used to have with other devices. I mute the device alone with the alarm clock function. If I wanted the alarm clock to sound at the time I set I will have to suffer the rest of noise.

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  26. Matt

    Airplane mode can, indeed, prevent certain unwanted things from bothering you, e.g., calls, texts, emails. But what if you want to want to surf, stream video or audio or play an online game whilst in your cone of silence?

    Put it this way —you need to get up early for a flight the next day, you set said alarm and go to the movies later and mute your phone with the hardware switch, for some reason you forget to unmute your phone before going to bed (or you prefer not to be disturbed whilst sleeping)… you still want/need that alarm to go off at the appointed time.

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  28. Paul

    Airplane mode is a bad option to silence all non-local alerts, not because it won’t work, but because entering airplane mode is a press to wake phone, slide + 4 tap to unlock, tap to open settings, slide to activate airplane mode. When I come home from a long night (or whatever), I want to be able to slide a single switch that I can do by feel, not go through the above procedure (which I have to repeat to reconnect my phone with the rest of the world). AND local alerts still make sounds.

    The way the switch works now is the best possible case without the complexity of sound profiles etc.

  29. Rudy

    Andy – the problem with your argument is that you went down the path of trying to prioritize events. You suggest that disrupting a philharmonic is far more important than missing an appt because you oversleep. Well, did you ever consider that the appt could be a life threatening one such as for heart surgery like my dad just had, or an appt with a very critical mission. I guess if the Navy Seals overslept because their iPhones didn’t go off, missing Bin Laden would be OK with you.

  30. Mark Hernandez

    All of this discussion can be avoided with a simple graphic. But where is that graphic? Why are we passing around all these words when a simple picture can explain it all.

    Also, we need a couple of additional modes besides Airplane Mode. “Church Mode” silences everything period, and is simple to understand. Sleeping Mode silences all but the alarm, even vibration until you grab that phone and do something with it.

    All three modes should have a simple graphic that goes with them, on the phone.

    Graphics are the key to the whole thing. For instance, why is there no simple graphic that shows what is backed up to iCloud, iTunes, Photo Stream, etc? It would save a ton of misunderstanding.

    I think I am one step ahead of all you guys. Sorry, but it’s true.

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  32. drew

    This is a fascinating discussion, and the first time I think I’ve disagreed with Andy.

    The very extreme nature of the incident in question shows how well designed the current function of the mute switch is.

    Whilst a settings tab for the mute switch would be a good idea for the iPhone, I think the fact that we can now control ebay notifications (as was one of Andy’s examples) through notification centre is a very acceptable alternative.

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  36. Raman

    No smartphone – and for that any mechanical or electronic device – is perfect. There are loop holes. These are good for one and bad for the other.
    However all these things never says anywhere that the user should switch off his think process or at worst hiks intelligence.
    Please get to know the way these devices work including the shortcomings or deviations!! And the learn to live with it!!!!

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  39. Rufferto

    One problem is that people call it the mute switch when on every specification picture on Apple’s site it says Ringer/Silent. So it is not called a mute switch. People just call it that because they understand it that way which is a misunderstanding. Whether that misunderstanding is Apple’s fault is open for argument.

    When you are in movies it asks you to turn your phone off. Why? Because even a mute phone is annoying if some idiot lights his face up in the theater to text. And btw most other phones don’t have a mute switch anyway so you would ordinarily turn your phone off.

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  41. Rob E

    The whole story is taken completely out of proportion. And Andy is just fueling it more.

    If the person in the audience that started this nonsense had a dumb phone (old Nokia or SonyEricssn) that had an alarm set for 8pm it would start the alarm even if the phone was turned off. Would anyone even take notice about this?

    I would say no. That is because Apple and iPhone are so popular that writing something about it just makes headlines.

    If you are not happy with how the iPhone ringer switch works the majority people think it works just as intended. To change the ringer switch to a mute switch would make it useless for the majority people. The beauty of the ringer switch button is that it is a very easy to access and switch off the sounds without even looking at the phone. Very useful when in a meeting, at work or at the cinema. And at the same time don’t have to worry about missing any wake up alarms. Honestly how many people have set an alarm to sound during the day or in the evening? I think the percentage is less than 0.001%.

    And how hard is it to turn off alarms? Even if you are dead tired it takes about 5 sec to pick up the iPhone and tell Siri… turn off alarms.

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