The Unspoken Question

by Dave Michels

What exactly should the mute button do?

Daniel J. Wakin, reporting for the NYT:

The unmistakably jarring sound of an iPhone marimba ring interrupted the soft and spiritual final measures of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday night. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, did something almost unheard-of in a concert hall: He stopped the performance. But the ringing kept on going, prompting increasingly angry shouts in the audience directed at the malefactor.

Actually, Patron X said he had no idea he was the culprit. He said his company replaced his BlackBerry with an iPhone the day before the concert. He said he made sure to turn it off before the concert, not realizing that the alarm clock had accidentally been set and would sound even if the phone was in silent mode.

“I didn’t even know phones came with alarms,” the man said.

This opens two proverbial cans of worms. The first topic is should the mute function, which clearly silences the ringer also silence the alarm? The second topic is “mute” even the right word.

The Mute Function:

It really boils down to user expectations and how to keep things simple or intuitive. We’ve all been told to silence our phones at various performances, and we generally turn down the volume or hit a mute option. Now be honest – if you mute or silence the phone, do you expect it to silence a set alarm?  (Topic originally spotted at Daring Fireball).

I think alarms are alarms – and should be loud. On my Android phone – the alarm setting has its own volume control. I always have it on high – and I would expect it to work even if the phone was muted or silent. Therefore, it is  the responsibility of the phone owner to manage his/her alarms and Patron X  should have been thrown-out on his/her ass for disrupting the Philharmonic. It is amazing how idiot proof these super computers in our pockets are – so much that we put our guard down. Ownership has some responsibility.

They should offer classes on basic smartphone etiquette, safety, and operation. I’m serious here – I am shocked (though less and less) when I find someone that doesn’t even have a password lock on their smartphone. The general public has no idea how much confidential information they have in these devices and how hard it would be if the phone fell into the wrong hands. People don’t understand the secrets they are giving away with “free” apps, and they don’t understand how to use basic features (like that evening shot through the window may not work with a flash). Smartphones give people the sense they are in control, but they aren’t. It’s like the classic misconception that almost all drivers think they are better than ‘average.’

Now for the second topic – what is a “mute” to do? With humans, a mute is someone that cannot speak.  On our speakerphones, the mute button button turns off the mic and thus the ability for  remote parties to hear us. It is a great tool to use when making fun of the people on the other end of the call. No one really gets mute confused with volume – which determines how loud our speaker is. On the television, mute controls the local volume or speakers.  For some reason, people don’t find this contradiction particularly confusing – mute silences something and we know what it is depending on the device.

Enter the smartphone which has properties of both the telephone and the television. If you are watching a video on the smartphone and wish to silence the audio for a moment, would you think of mute? On that same device, if you wanted to make fun of the remote person -would you think of mute?

Now, imagine the two of us were going to the Philharmonic, but we lost one ticket. We decide that you will go in and call me – I will listen to the concert via your speakerphone. Now they say “mute” your phones – is this intended to keep me from hearing the music or intended to keep my cough from disrupting the auditorium?

What we have hear is a failure to communicate. My mother-in-law was very soft spoken and very hard to hear on a phone. I wanted to buy her a phone that amplified her audio. I called around asking for such a device and everyone assumed I wanted to amplify the speaker part of the handset. No, she could hear just fine. I did find the phone, made by Clarity. It was truly impressive how much we confuse audio-out and audio-in.