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 replies
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  1. Phil
    Phil says:

    Personally I prefer the way the iPhone is right now. Here is why. Like a bunch of people I use my iPhone to wake me up in the morning. I leave my phone muted because the ONLY noise I want to come from phone is the alarm noise. If I was forced to leave it un-muted to wake me up then during the night I could potentially hear all the noises that my phone makes. New emails, new text messages from drunk friends, facebook notifications, etc. I would just prefer to sleep and only be awaken once.

  2. Tamara
    Tamara says:

    I might be inclined to agree with you if there were any indication on the front of the phone, like in the status bar, that mute was engaged. The little sliver of day glo orange does nothing to remind me because the only reason I ever look at the side of the phone is if I am already thinking about the mute switch. I’ve long wished for an icon to remind me, because I do frequently forget to unmute.

  3. Richard
    Richard says:

    I agree Apple and Gruber get this wrong. I never had this issue with my BlackBerry, but I am often surprised when my iPhone makes noise, even though I muted. it.

  4. Clint MacDonald
    Clint MacDonald says:

    Yes, Andy! Finally, someone with a bully pulpit who gets it right. On my own bully pulpit (my eleven Twitter followers), I wrote, “@daringfireball Disagree. Why call it a mute switch if it doesn’t? Why not call it the “Sound Surprise” switch?”

    Apple tacitly admits they made a mistake with the iPad’s Mute/Lock Rotation switch. Several people discovered that the Mute switch on the iPad doesn’t really mute most things, so it is much easier to use the volume rocker right next to it. More useful to use the “Mute” switch to lock the screen rotation.

    Best wishes,
    Clint

  5. Masklinn
    Masklinn says:

    Andy, I don’t agree with you. The part about context is true, but there is an other one: user action.

    In the case of an alarm, I as the owner set it, I asked my phone to do something for me. The way I see the “mute” switch, it’s a “don’t bother me” toggle, so it shuts down external noise on which I have no power (phone calls, messages, notifications), but it lets through noises which I personally set up: alarms work and music works.

    A “mute” muting everything would be quite bothersome, no music in the bus because I decided that my getting phone calls should not bother other passengers? Not being woken up because I forgot unmuting the phone after coming home shitfaced at 3AM?

    Nah, I have to go with Gruber on this one, if I, the owner of the phone, asked for noise I should get noise in “mute mode”.

    On the other hand, I remember being able to get a completely silent phone by toggling rocking the sound switch to 0, that does not seem possible anymore.

  6. Domenico Bettinelli
    Domenico Bettinelli says:

    Maybe there should be a “Library” or “Concert Hall” mode to go alongside “Airplane” mode. After all, Apple designed for this edge case, so why not for a more general case of needing total silence at times.

  7. Brian
    Brian says:

    So many (MANY MANY) words devoted to a silly issue. I like Andy, but he definitely comes from the school of “why only use 100 words when 1500 would do the job.”

  8. Robert
    Robert says:

    I agree with Phil – when I want my iPhone to wake me up at 6am, but not at 3:14am due to a drunk buddy messaging me, there is simply no alternative to the current mute-switch behaviour. A behaviour I saw exactly the same way on all my previous phones btw (all Nokia and one Samsung dumbphones).

  9. Jay
    Jay says:

    Andy (can we be on a first name basis despite having never met?), you have an erroneous example in Case “B”.

    According to Apple’s User Guide for iOS 5: “When set to silent, iPhone doesn’t play any ring, alert, or effects sounds. It does, however, play Clock alarms.” Therefore, the eBay alert would not disrupt the meeting and our user would still be gainfully employed.

    I agree with Gruber that this is a bit of an edge case since the ONLY mute switch override is from a Clock alarm – all other apps (including Apple’s Reminder and iCal apps) will be silent. Additionally, the Clock alarm is silenced as soon as the phone is unlocked, though this may be too late to avoid embarrassment.

    Regarding your Android camera shutter CLICKKKK!!!!!, the iOS User Guide also states: “Note: In some areas, the sound effects for Camera and Voice Memos are played even if the Ring/Silent switch is set to silent.” This is not limited to phones, it applies to all non-SLR cameras in certain countries around the world. You can thank the nanny-state regulators for this, not the whims of software developers in California.

  10. scott
    scott says:

    I’m all for a Settings option to make it work one way or the other. But even if such a setting were available, the default behavior should be the way it works now. There are just too many people who want to mute their ringer and notifications but not their morning alarm. Like almost everyone who uses their iPhone as a wakeup alarm.

  11. Scott Plumlee
    Scott Plumlee says:

    I don’t see how people can be surprised by an alarm – when one is set, the status bar at the top of the phone indicates that an alarm is on. So it’s clear when something is scheduled. On the other hand, I always turn my daily alarms off each morning, so it’s not usually there.

    I do agree, an indicator for ‘muted’ would be very nice – this is the killer feature for using your phone for long conference calls. I always have to unlock to verify mute.

  12. Eric
    Eric says:

    Wrong again. Why do I read this guys shit? I’d be getting scores from European soccer all night long. I put it on mute and my alarm Goes off. As it should be. Turn you phone OFF in a meeting or movie. Then you have no choice but to turn it back on and get everything you missed. He’s terrible on macbreak weekly. He’s wrong here again. But he’s also old. He doesn’t understand how our
    generation works

  13. Matt Rix
    Matt Rix says:

    Masklinn hit the nail on the head.

    The mute switch is there to shut out *external* factors, things outside the user’s control. Setting an alarm is a very intentional act. If you have an alarm set to go off during the New York Philharmonic, you’re using alarms wrong.

  14. Agaethon
    Agaethon says:

    Andy, as always makes a good point, but I have to disagree. Like most people who disagree I have the same desire to sleep with my phone muted so calls, emails, text etc do not bother me or my wife (or our daughter when she decides she’s had enough with her own bed). But I fully expect the phone to wake me up in the morning because its an Alarm that I had set. Now Andy’s “B” case has some merit. But the alarm app isn’t necessarily meant for reminders, like the eBay auction story. That’s what the Reminders app is for. You can set a time to have a notification come on for the reminder, and that does abide by the mute switch. That makes senses, its isn’t an Alarm, you know that Alarm that says, “Wake-up sleepy head, time to get to work!” ;-)

  15. Graham
    Graham says:

    I’ve fairly certain every phone I’ve ever owned has behaved exactly like the iPhone does.

    In fact, all of them except the iPhone would wake up and play a scheduled alarm even when completely switched off.

    So this isn’t new territory.

  16. John
    John says:

    Good points by you and Gruber. But it seems the only edge case involves waking alarms. Why not have an extra toggle (not an alert) when setting a clock alarm to indicate it should sound even if muted.

    Another annoyance I have is how videos play with sound even when muted. It’s not just alarms.

  17. skip1515
    skip1515 says:

    While I can see merit in both ways of handling the mute switch, the bulk of the opposition to mute = mute in all regards –what happens if you forget about having used the mute switch – is for there to be a big icon on the screen announcing that The Sound Is Still Off Dummy whenever you use mute. That way, if you forget to turn mute off but use your phone, the sound’s status will be very evident.

  18. Shaun
    Shaun says:

    I haven’t found this to be a problem myself — I like the way it behaves just now.

    But a solution to this would be to have a mute slider that has three notches. Mute off, mute and mute all.

  19. Martin
    Martin says:

    How does this work in hotels? If you request a wakeup call but also press the do not disturb button on the phone. My guess is that they would still make the wakeup call.

    The alarm part of the phone is like an alarm clock, it is there to wake you up no matter what. So it should go off even if the phone is on mute. If you need reminders, then use the calendar, the phone will mute those when it is in silent mode.

  20. Mitch Cohen
    Mitch Cohen says:

    If your eBay app is ignoring the mute switch, find a new eBay app. Until you do that, don’t leave your eBay app in the foreground if you’re worried about unexpected sounds.

    Here’s the deal.

    Sounds generated by background alerts, called Local Notifications, obey the mute switch. Local Notifications are managed by the OS, not the app, so that’s not even overridable. The Alarm app is from Apple so it has its own rules, and will not obey the mute switch. (I prefer the way it works now, but that’s not the point of this comment.)

    If the app is active (either in foreground, or running as an explicitly-allowed background app) it can decide whether or not to obey the mute switch. Apple clearly defines audio session “categories” to tell the OS how to play audio when the mute switch is off (among other device states). Info is here:
    http://developer.apple.com/library/ios/#documentation/Audio/Conceptual/AudioSessionProgrammingGuide/AudioSessionCategories/AudioSessionCategories.html

    The default category is SoloAmbient, which obeys the mute switch. The only categories which don’t obey the mute switch are Media Playback categories. This allows apps like podcast-playback apps to play even when the switch is set to mute. (Again, I like this behavior. Lets me fall asleep listening to podcasts without being bothered by incoming 3am emails.)

    So if an app plays an event sound not directly connected with user action when the switch is set to mute, the developer is doing it wrong. They’re explicitly changing the Audio Session Category to ignore the mute switch. There may situations where this explicitly change is appropriate for event sounds not connected with user action, but I can’t think of any.

    More info on this here:

    http://developer.apple.com/library/IOs/#documentation/Audio/Conceptual/AudioSessionProgrammingGuide/Configuration/Configuration.html

    AVAudioSessionCategoryPlayback or the equivalent kAudioSessionCategory_MediaPlayback—Use this category for an application whose audio playback is of primary importance. Your audio plays even with the screen locked and with the Ring/Silent switch set to silent.

  21. Khürt Williams
    Khürt Williams says:

    Andy, I have another scenario for you.

    Case “C”: 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 arrives late for an important meeting. He mutes his phone again so he does not disturb the meeting. But the meeting runs late and into the time slot for another meeting. But his phones on mute so he misses that alert as well and is late for his next meeting ….

    No thanks! I like the way the mute switch works now.

  22. Jason T. Calhoun
    Jason T. Calhoun says:

    I’ve never understood why iOS alarms are given such primacy over every other user interaction with the device. Here’s another (I’d imagine) common scenario where the iPhone produces unexpected results:

    A user is listening to music in a quiet area with mute switch “on,” headphones plugged in, and an alarm set. Although every other sound (music, phone calls, notifications, etc.) will be directed through the headphones as expected and not through the built-in speakers (also as expected, given the mute switch), the alarm will sound as loudly as otherwise, thus causing a public disturbance.

    In this case, the user had doubly expressed through mute switch and headphones that the phone was not to make a sound, but instead was presented with behavior that was both unintended and without explanation.

    The mute switch should silence all sounds in all scenarios. Perhaps, the solution to the no-calls-at-night problem should come in a new device-wide “quite time” setting. But if one oversleeps because he or she forgot to un-mute from the day before, that’s not the device’s problem.

  23. Fred
    Fred says:

    The mobile phone industry solved this problem eons ago with sound profiles, but apparently Steve didn’t want his phone to work that way, so we’re out of luck.

  24. Ted T.
    Ted T. says:

    It is perfect exactly as is. As numerous posters have stated, I don’t want to be woken in the middle of the night by any kind of stupid alert, but do want the alarm in the morning.

    Also, my pre-iPhone dumbphone would *power up* to deliver an alarm, and indeed I remember
    complaints in 2007 that the iPhone wouldn’t do it as it was expected behavior from that eras cell phones.

    Andy, this one time, you are completely wrong.

  25. Jody
    Jody says:

    THIS! Oh my God, my son was starring in The Sound of Music and my muted phone was in my coat pocket. I must have done some magic movement because it STARTED PLAYING MUSIC! From the lock screen. While on mute. I nearly died.

  26. Jason Robinson
    Jason Robinson says:

    Masklinn and Jay are exactly correct:

    Alarms (i.e., for waking up in the morning) and music (which the user has presumably started intentionally) are the two situations in which the mute switch is ignored.

    Your eBay ‘alarm’ should really be an alert, which is what happens when you use the calendar to remind you of an event.

    Alarms are meant to be – well, alarming. :)

  27. Doug K
    Doug K says:

    Interesting. I never used my iPhone as an alarm clock because I didn’t want to hear all the email alerts and calendar warnings during the night. When I first heard of this incident, I was delighted: there is a way to mute the email, etc. alerts and still be woken up.

    Other commenters have noted this, too: When the phone is muted, all “assumed” noises are muted: the ring-tone, calendar alerts, etc. Alarm clock alarms are differentiated in that, when present, there is a visual indicator that one is set. Since I use calendar alerts for virtually of my reminders, the mute switch works perfectly for me.

    I sympathize with the original victim, but I am now more satisfied than before with the iPhone implementation, and it’s back on duty as an alternate alarm clock.

  28. Slick
    Slick says:

    I don’t understand why the iPhone does not support sound profiles like the old Nokia phones do and the Blackberries do. This would allow users to build specific edge case profiles.

  29. John Baxter
    John Baxter says:

    I’m with Andy on this one (but not strongly).

    I didn’t know the alarm sounds through mute–I don’t use the alarm often (I don’t have to get up at a particular time most days). When I do, I often wake up prematurely and unmute the phone if it was muted.

    My phone use is different: SMS messages are pages from our systems. My SMS count last billing period was 6.

    Oh, and Eric: Andy is a kid. I’m the one who is old (72).

    –John

  30. Clint MacDonald
    Clint MacDonald says:

    Andy:

    Don’t listen to them! You are right, and they are all wrong (though I admit that sound profiles or “quiet times” would be useful)! A mute switch should do what it says on the label. There are legitimate times and reasons to want some sounds to come through and others to be silenced, but that is not “mute.”

    Best wishes,
    Clint

  31. Jimbo
    Jimbo says:

    How about at a movie or concert, you just turn the phone off? Hold that power button and slide to turn off. Problem solved. We used to turn cell phones off, didn’t we?

  32. Scott Reynolds
    Scott Reynolds says:

    Case “B” is fatally flawed: scheduling something a week in advance would require using Calendar, which in fact are silenced.

    Without case “B” and the related confusion between calendar alerts and clock alarms, there’s not much left to your argument.

  33. deviladv
    deviladv says:

    Methinks this needs to be a user controllable option if people are making a stink about it. I think the current functionality is the least obtrusive for everyone.

    I also think there’s some mistakes about how this works. The only sounds I’ve ever heard come thru when the phone is muted are: 1) Alarms 2) Poorly coded apps. I’ve never heard a shutter when the phone was muted.

  34. PhilipS
    PhilipS says:

    +1 vote for Andy and the-mute-button-should-be-mute-button side. It would never have occurred to me that it didn’t do what I always assumed it did.

  35. David Bourbon
    David Bourbon says:

    “Well, I don’t think there is any question about it. It can only be attributable to human error.”
    – HAL

  36. pmult
    pmult says:

    I would expect that if the mute button were on, and an alarm were to sound, the phone would vibrate instead. That’s my expectation for mute. All sounds are converted to vibrate. I think Apple got it wrong.

  37. Michael Boyle
    Michael Boyle says:

    Gotta agree with Apple and Gruber on this one. No need to be mean about it (I love Andy’s work and have been enjoying it since the 90s), but I agree with the above commenter who pointed out that you can turn your phone off.

    As it is there are two modes:

    1) Want to make sure it doesn’t bother anyone ever? Turn the damn thing off. Checking texts as it vibrates in your pocket is almost as rude as the noise from a ring, and sometimes vibrating is as bad as the ring. Or the interference through an amp when you get a call.

    2) Only bother me with things I specifically asked to be bothered by.

    With those two modes, you cover 99% of situations.

    The one remaining problem is the one pointed out above about alarms playing through the speakers when you are listening to music through the headphones. I personally leave the headphones plugged in at night often, (or take them out of my ears and put my phone down while a timer is ticking) so I appreciate the way it works now, but it’s a legitimate gotcha where neither setting above will work.

    So sure, a “concert mode” switch that prevents any noise from the speaker would be a good thing to cover those few situations. Like airplane mode or turning it off, you have to think a bit about putting it on, so it’s on you if it screws you, you asked for it. But I don’t think it’s a big deal and I do think Apple thought carefully about the behavior here and chose the one that works right most often.

  38. Thomas Fruin
    Thomas Fruin says:

    I have to agree with Andy on this one.

    The fact is that the mute functionality is one of the few iPhone features that gets its very own, dedicated hardware slider. That says something about the importance of the feature. You would therefore expect that this slider, in Apple parlance, “just works”, meaning that it truly mutes. Always.

  39. Mike
    Mike says:

    Ah. Spoken like a true writer who doesn’t have a bazillion 8:30 AM meetings to attend. (I jest!)

    The iPhone’s current behaviour is correct. If you set an alarm, you set it because you want to *forget* about it and have the phone remind you. That is the sole purpose of setting the alarm. If muting the phone disables that functionality, then there is *no* purpose in providing the ability to set an alarm (which may or may not go off) in the first place.

  40. Mitch Cohen
    Mitch Cohen says:

    (Tried posting this earlier, but it’s still in moderation. I’ve removed the links to two Apple Developer pages hoping it’ll sail through this time.)

    If your eBay app is ignoring the mute switch, find a new eBay app. Until you do that, don’t leave your eBay app in the foreground if you’re worried about unexpected sounds.

    Here’s the deal.

    Sounds generated by background alerts, called Local Notifications, obey the mute switch. Local Notifications are managed by the OS, not the app, so that’s not even overridable. The Alarm app is from Apple so it has its own rules, and will not obey the mute switch. (I prefer the way it works now, but that’s not the point of this comment.)

    If the app is active (either in foreground, or running as an explicitly-allowed background app) it can decide whether or not to obey the mute switch. Apple clearly defines audio session “categories” to tell the OS how to play audio when the mute switch is off (among other device states).

    The default category is SoloAmbient, which obeys the mute switch. The only categories which don’t obey the mute switch are Media Playback categories. This allows apps like podcast-playback apps to play even when the switch is set to mute. (Again, I like this behavior. Lets me fall asleep listening to podcasts without being bothered by incoming 3am emails.)

    So if an app plays an event sound not directly connected with user action when the switch is set to mute, the developer is doing it wrong. They’re explicitly changing the Audio Session Category to ignore the mute switch. There may situations where this explicitly change is appropriate for event sounds not connected with user action, but I can’t think of any.

    From Apple’s documentation:

    AVAudioSessionCategoryPlayback or the equivalent kAudioSessionCategory_MediaPlayback—Use this category for an application whose audio playback is of primary importance. Your audio plays even with the screen locked and with the Ring/Silent switch set to silent.

  41. John Dingleberry
    John Dingleberry says:

    Mute should mute everything. Going to a concert may be an edge case but being in a place where you are supposed to be quiet is not. Easy solution for people that want an alarm in the morning but not receive phone calls or european soccer results during the night: airplane mode. Much quicker than switching the phone off and on again.

  42. Sharon Sharalike
    Sharon Sharalike says:

    IT’s not a mute switch for the speaker. It’s for the ringer. When you switch it you get an image of a bell with a line through it, not a speaker.

    If you want to mute the whole phone, there are switches *right next to it* that will do that. Why have a separate switch the would do almost exactly the same thing?

    Try playing some music and then hit the switch. The music continues to play. That’s because it’s not a mute switch for the speaker. It controls the ringer.

  43. Chris
    Chris says:

    I’m a librarian. My phone is always on mute when I’m outside of the house (why isn’t yours, by the way?). I started the year with a sinus infection so I’ve been using Apple’s alarms to remind me to take antibiotics, which was fine until I got back to work and my alarm started going off periodically. Sorry for the guy in New York–I feel similarly betrayed.

    Lesson Learned: Apple thinks alarms are more important than anything else.

  44. Jack
    Jack says:

    I like Andy’s suggestion of a preference option with the default set to mute all. Great article, I especially liked the talking iPhone in Case ‘B’

  45. Smit
    Smit says:

    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.

  46. Tim Breen
    Tim Breen says:

    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.

  47. pwb
    pwb says:

    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).

  48. Robert Emslie
    Robert Emslie says:

    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.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] current usability, while others focused on user-error. Still, there are two ways to look at it, as Andy Ihnatko pointed out: So that’s why I’m moved to post my own thoughts about this Daring Fireball piece. I think […]

  2. […] Andy Ihnatko disagrees: 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. […]

  3. […] Andy Ihnatko in a very long analysis says […]

  4. […] the iPhone’s ring/silent switch, kicked off by an article in the New York Times. John Gruber, Andy Ihnatko, and Marco Arment have weighed in, and covered most of the ground, but here’s three […]

  5. […] Daring Fireball: On the Behavior of the iPhone Mute Switch – Andy Ihnatko’s Celestial Waste of B… […]

  6. […] discussion recently came to the fore after one unfortunate fellow found himself the center of attention during a music event in which his iPhone decided to […]

  7. Quora says:

    How could Apple better design the mute feature on the iPhone?…

    Currently, to fully mute, you must go into Settings > Sounds and mute everything. To silence your phone, you can flip the Ring/Silence or Vibrate switch on the side of the phone. This feature/functionality has recently received a good deal of publicity…

  8. […] Andy Ihnatko in a very long analysis says no. The Mute behavior of the iPhone is just wrong; it’s an important […]

  9. […] Andy Ihnatko, on the other hand, feels strongly that the phone should always do what the user expects it to do, and not try to be smarter than the user: 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. […]

  10. […] Gruber Marco Ben Brooks Ihnatko […]

  11. […] Daring Fireball: On the Behavior of the iPhone Mute Switch – Andy Ihnatko’s Celestial Waste … […]

  12. […] on the Net, people strongly discuss the behaviour of the iPhone mute switch. Because apparently there can be only one option in […]

  13. […] dice che il comportamento non è ambiguo. Andy Ihnatko dice che lo è e lo credo anch’io, non per nulla per mesi sono andato a letto con il volume […]

  14. […] event has sparked a lot of debate about the behavior of the iPhone’s mute […]

  15. […] dice che il comportamento non è ambiguo. Andy Ihnatko dice che lo è e lo credo anch’io, non per nulla per mesi sono andato a letto con il volume […]

  16. […] I do know for sure is that if the mute switch on the iPhone worked as Andy Ihnatko argues it should then I would be unable to use my iPhone as an alarm clock. I get far, far too many […]

  17. […] Andy Ihnatko thinks that mute should mean mute (i.e. [orange] = “off” rather than [orange] = “alarm”) […]

  18. […] There’s a good round of discussion about the appropriate way to implement a mute switch. Gruber favors the current design. Andy doesn’t. […]

  19. […] Ihnatko has a fantastically thoughtful article on how the iPhone's "mute" switch's behaviour is disingenuous. It's a good read and, even though I disagree with him, I appreciate the thought he put into the […]

  20. […] Daring Fireball On the Behavior of the iPhone Mute Switch […]

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