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Phones Need Performance Mode for Silence

The award for greatest public embarrassment experienced in 2012 so far must go to the New York Philharmonic season-ticket holder sitting in the front row of Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center whose iPhone produced a continuous marimba sound because of an alarm going off — until the conductor stopped the orchestra and the patron managed to turn it off.

The concertgoer had just been issued the iPhone by his company the day before, swapping out a BlackBerry, and he had no idea an alarm was set, according to a New York Times account. But is it his fault? I examined this issue, talking with usable design guru Donald Norman (once a key figure at Apple before Jobs’s return), for an item in the Economist.

Is it the phone owner’s fault? By his telling, he dutifully flipped the mute switch on the iPhone to the silent position. But alarm sounds override mute. This makes some sense: you don’t set an alarm to forget it. John Gruber comes out in favor of the current mute behavior at Daring Fireball. Andy Ihnatko suggests that everyone’s expectation of muting is different, and thus no particular behavior can ever be correct except the one you want. He also points out that there is a completely silent setting: it’s called “turning the phone off.”

Andy notes that Apple’s insistence on simplicity, and usually rightly so, means that we can’t customize our phone to match our expectations. It would require a bunch of switches, and everyone’s would be slightly different. Google might offer this with Android, or allow developers to control muting behavior, but Apple prefers less complication, even if that’s less ideal for everyone.

There’s a simple way out that wouldn’t involve more complexity, just one more switch in the Settings app: Performance Mode, just below Airplane Mode. Airplane Mode disables all radios on an iPhone: cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and even the passive GPS receiver. (You can re-enable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth separately, however.)

Performance Mode would let you tap, set a duration or a range (conceivably being tied in to the Calendar app, even), and disable all audio of any kind during that period. It could also dim the backlighting so that if you fire up the phone, it’s minimally disturbing to others, and set vibration to the least buzzy setting.

One can see other technological solutions as well. While GPS doesn’t work well indoors, a combination of weak GPS signals and interior Wi-Fi networks allows placement close enough to know if someone is inside or at least near a performance venue or a movie theater. A mobile phone could even give you a popup warning when you enter a true silence zone: “While in this location, all alarms and sounds are muted unless you tap Override for 1 Hour now.”

None of this is perfect. But isn’t it worth trying to preserve a little silence in places where such quiet is golden? The industry could step up to the plate, with Google and Apple leading the batting order.

Further Thoughts — Comments came fast and furious on this article both here and on Twitter. I wanted to address some of them for further discussion.

  • Nitrozac and Snaggy at Joy of Tech weigh in with this appropriate cartoon: “To Mute or Not To Mute?

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  • “It’s the Ring/Silent switch, and if you can’t figure that out, you shouldn’t use the phone.” On page 146 of Apple’s iOS 5 for iPhone manual (PDF), the firm’s explanation of the switch should show why such statements are a little over the top. “When set to silent, iPhone doesn’t play any ring, alert, or effects sounds. It does, however, play Clock alarms.” Read that a few times, and make sure you’ve got it: a ring, alert, or effects sound is not a Clock alarm.

  • Image

  • “You set the alarm; you’re responsible for the sound it makes when it goes off.” This is partly true. In iOS, at least, and I’m not sure how much on other phone platforms, the operation is asymmetrical. When you set an alarm, you can choose a sound. But it’s not clear when you set the sound, unless you’ve Read The Friendly Manual carefully, that a Clock alarm won’t be muted when you set the Silent switch. Commenters and others have suggested iOS should alert you when setting an alarm while the Silent switch is engaged that the alarm will sound, and that switching from Ring to Silent should bring up a dialog or notification (even though you can make the change without looking at the screen). I’d add that you can tell
    an alarm is active because of the tiny alarm clock icon in the status bar at the top of the screen. But is that enough to jog a non-techie person’s memory that a sound might go off later?

  • “The guy set the alarm, so he should have known it would happen.” Apple makes it relatively clear when you’re setting an alarm precisely when it will go off. However, cut the guy some slack: he was given the phone the day before as a recovering BlackBerry user. Presumably, someone else set the alarm (perhaps in demonstrating the phone for him?). Or the alarm’s event could have been set for a different time zone, an inconvenience we sometimes run into with the group TidBITS calendar to which the staff subscribes. Since he was a Philharmonic subscriber, he knew precisely where he would be at that time: listening to the last movement of Mahler’s Ninth.

  • “People need to know how to use the hardware they buy.” This is true to an extent. But as Adam wrote in “Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age?” (18 August 2009), many people today — including younger folk, who we think should be hip to this stuff — don’t have to learn the basics of computing, because the tools work better. An iPhone can be picked up and used without a demonstration. It comes with no manual, just a link to read one online. The subtle distinction of a mute that doesn’t mute everything may be too much to ask.

  • “Turn the damn thing off.” This is absolutely an option, and a sensible one in the right circumstance. As a parent of small children sometimes having high-school-age babysitters taking care of the tykes, I’m often in a situation in which being able to receive a message or an alert — and then exiting the theater or hall when it’s appropriate and possible — prevents a difficult situation at home. It also reassures my wife and me that in case of an emergency, we’re reachable. We don’t fiddle with our phones. Our parents, of course, had no such option. They would leave the number of the performance space, movie theater, restaurant, and so forth, and go blissfully on their way. By contrast, when I took a meditation course
    recently on nights that my wife also had obligations, she and I arranged that she would be the emergency contact. I turned my phone off — and then my mind.

  • “People who can’t figure out how to prevent an alarm from sounding wouldn’t sort out a Performance Mode switch, either.” Having suggested this, I tend to disagree. On airplanes, flight attendants and airline information ask that you power down your phone, and then only use it above 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) with Airplane Mode engaged, if your phone has one. Every live and taped performance I’ve been to has sometimes lengthy instructions about silencing a phone. Instead, they could say, “If your phone features a performance mode to silence all alarms, rings, and extraneous vibrations, please enable that now.”

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