That Pesky Mute Button

There’s a lot of people talking about the mute button today. Since the rest of the Internet echo chamber seems to be weighing in, why not me too?

The problem is that when you put an iPhone on mute, it’s not completely silent. Specifically, alarms and timers go off. If you open the Music or Video apps and start a media file, it will play as well even though the device is set to mute. This caused a hubbub at the New York Philharmonic when someone’s alarm went off during the concert. John Gruber thinks this behavior is right. Andy Ihnatko thinks it is wrong.

I first discovered the nuances of the mute button while sitting in the back of the Orange County Superior Courthouse with my shiny new generation 1 iPhone where, to my surprise, an alarm went off in open court despite my having flipped the mute button before walking in the room. If you’ve never been in court, I’d like to congratulate you for being generally smart and also let you know that in court electronic noises are frowned upon. Some judges are legendary for their disdain for things that go beep and buzz. There is one judge that has a sign prominently displayed in his courtroom explaining that any electronic noise results in a $500 fine, payable immediately.

So you can understand it’s important to me that my phone not make any noise in court. I couldn’t simply turn the phone off (as Dave Caolo suggests) because I need my calendar and sometimes my electronic notes when standing in front of the guy in the black robe. Moreover, text messaging (silently) is a great tool to keep in touch with the war room back at the office when the bullets are flying the courtroom.

Dealing with this problem really isn’t all that difficult. You just need to follow a few commonsense rules:

  • Never set alarms to go off when you know you’re going to be a place where you can’t have any noise.
  • Don’t open music or video files.

That’s it. So now I walk in a courtroom, set the mute button, and confirm no alarms or timers set. In four and half years, no problems. (I’ve not had any sounds from from any other apps but I’m pretty stingy about notifications to begin with.) With the arrival of the iPad, I am now able to turn the phone off entirely and use the iPad in silence mode for the same purpose. I must, however, still follow the same rules.

I feel bad for the guy at the Philharmonic. He must’ve felt terrible and I really don’t blame him. After all, I got stung the exact same way before I figured it out. Nevertheless, I don’t see this as requiring any type of software switch or change by Apple. I’m with the camp that believes it’s much better having people learn this lesson once or twice rather than have half the iPhone using nation late for work because their alarm didn’t go off that morning.