The iPhone Mute Debate

The iPhone Mute Debate

In case you’ve not been keeping up with the controversy, the background is here.

Gruber at Daring Fireball says:

I think the current behavior of the iPhone mute switch is correct. You can’t design around every single edge case, and a new iPhone user who makes the reasonable but mistaken assumption that the mute switch silences everything, with an alarm set that he wasn’t aware of, and who is sitting in the front row of the New York Philharmonic when the accidental alarm goes off, is a pretty good example of an edge case.

I agree that it’s a good edge case. What makes it a good edge case is because it’s so uncommon. The more common scenario, which is not edge, is given succinctly by Andy Ihnatko:

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 each of these cases, the user is going to be miffed. In the first case, assuming he’s moderately sane, he’s going to realize that he’s the one who muted the phone and it’s his own fault for not remembering to toggle the mute switch off. This happens to me all the time.

In the second case, he’s going to be pissed and embarrassed. He muted the phone and it did not stay muted. He didn’t expect it to behave the way normal people expect a muted device to behave.

While I agree that Gruber has identified an edge case, and I agree that programming for the edge case is risky and often unnecessary, I agree with Ihnatko that the iPhone’s current behavior is not what most users expect. Non-edge case users. People who think that mute means mute, not mute plus.

Here’s how defines mute:


  1. silent; refraining from speech or utterance.

  2. not emitting or having sound of any kind.

  3. incapable of speech; dumb.

  4. (of letters) silent; not pronounced.

That’s the common, understood definition of mute. And when I mute a device, I expect it to stay muted until I decide otherwise. That’s how televisions work. That how radios work. And it’s how the iPhone should work. Either that or Apple need to rename the mute switch, because when people toggle the mute switch it should behave (at least by default) according to normal, understood language.