Some guy writes an articles in the New York Times because his iPhone alarm goes off during a concert, causing him significant embarrassment.1 Words used to described the situation in the NYT included shame, jarring, angry, vitriol and devastating. The apparent “culprit” claimed he was so traumatized he hadn’t slept for 2 days.2

As unimportant as this event was, except as a object lesson that we should be careful to value the opinion of New Yorkers on anything, it did spark off more blog posts in the community on a single issue than I think even occurred with. Even Hivelogic came out of the mothballs.

It seems that everyone of note has had something to say on the issue.

Since I now find myself devastated by the whole situation, jarred out of my complacent lifestyle by all the vitriolic writings and overwhelmed with shame that my favorite device, I thought I should gather the courage to add a few points that seem to have been missed.

For those not wanting to go through all the above posts3, the short version is that the so-called “Mute” switch on the side of the iPhone is actually called the “Ring/Silent switch” and does not actually mute the phone completely, allowing songs, videos, games and alarms to make nose, presumably on the premise that these are items that the user has specifically stated they want to make noise.

There have been many good points made both for and against this current behavior:

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. - Andy Ihnatko

The user has issued conflicting commands, and the iPhone can’t obey both. - Marco Arment

[W]hen I go to bed at night, I want to know that my alarm will wake me, but that my drunk friends won’t. - Ben Brooks

I see two main arguments here:

Philosophical argument: Alarms are important and are explicitly set. They should go off no matter what because folks will forget they muted their phone the night before, miss their alarm and get fired for being late. This will occur much more frequently than some dilitante getting socially castrated because of his alarm going off doing the sublime section of Mahler.

Practical argument: When you activate the mute switch you have the expectation that the phone won’t make any noise, ever, like on every other phone on the market. If you forget to undo it, that’s your own damn fault. Grown a pair.

I’ve suffered the negative consequences from both of the above, and really can’t say which is worse. I think both sides have made very good points and I don’t see a clear winner here. Each time I read a new post, I start to agree with that one.4

Missing Factor

But then Ben Brooks pointed out something this morning that got me thinking. He noted that the image displayed on the screen when you flip the not-a-mute switch looks different than the image when you press the volume buttons. For example, the first image below is using the not-a-mute switch while the second one is using the volume buttons:

This prompted me to check something I vaguely remembered—you can’t turn off the volume completely using the volume buttons. Here is the same symbol with the volume turned as low as possible using the volume buttons:

There is still one box of volume remaining. I also remembered that this didn’t seem to always be the case. I know that I’ve turned the volume down all the way before. Was it on a previous iPhone? Or was it on my first generation iPod Touch that I had to use before my wife let me buy I bought a real iPhone?

I ripped my son’s 4th generation iPod Touch from his death grip5 and put it to the test. The first thing I noticed is that the symbol is not labeled ringer, but sound effects:

Also, you can turn the volume all the way off:

So I set an alarm, turned off the volume and waited…


The alarm triggered, the screen turned on, but no sound or vibration occurred.

It turns out that the controversial behavior appears to be unique to the iPhone and is not the same on the iPod Touch, aka John Siracusa’s iPhone. The iPod Touch has no mute switch. The volume buttons control the “sound effects”. You can turn the volume off completely, which does silence the alarms.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that this solves the problem. I would probably like it made so that the mute switch works like on every other phone, completely silencing everything, but that if I turn the volume all the way down using the volume keys, it could go all the way off, silencing only the ringer, but allowing alarms to play. Basically, I would have both the Philosophical and Practical options available to me

But this seems to be a solution for a tech-savy nerd and not a solution for grandma, and therefore is a fail.

Many have pointed out that there should be options for the different behavior in the settings and while I generally agree with this, it doesn’t answer the general user issue of what should be the default behavior.

At least now I am aware of the situation and less likely to make a mistake in the future.

Update: My wife weighs in and, as all husbands know, is the final authority.

  1. The mute switch should silence everything—no exceptions.
  2. People who have to get up at a certain time should be paranoid enough to verify their alarm’s settings.
  3. There should be many options in the settings to allow you to customize this in detail.
  1. This and a reader question if the NYT should care about truth were the big stories this week. And they wonder why they’re fighting for their businesses life. 

  2. Meanwhile, the slaughter of a bunch of unknown kids in an unknown country for unknown reasons received no reaction as it was not covered in the fish wrap. You’ll have to listen to the BBC if you want real news. 

  3. Shame on you. 

  4. Damn their Jedi mind tricks.