The mute switch and the missing feature

In the “what does mute mean” disagreement between John Gruber and Andy Ihnatko I’m generally in agreement with Gruber: having “mute” on a phone mean something other than “no sound under any circumstances” is so valuable it shouldn’t be abandoned. But I’m sympathetic to people in Andy’s camp, mainly because the mute switch on the iPhone is misleading to the unwary.

The heart of the disagreement arises because of software intermediation, which I wrote about a few days ago. People on the Ihnatko side think of the mute switch as a true switch, wired into a circuit that, when opened, cuts all power to the speaker.

Hard-wired mute switch

I’m not saying these people believe the speaker is physically wired this way; I’m saying this is their conceptual model for how it works. This model is wrong, of course, but it’s not hard to see why it persists.

There are five hardware mechanisms on the iPhone. Four of them are momentary buttons that carry no state. The mute switch is the only one that carries with it an indication of its current state. Our experience with analog devices like lamps leads us to believe that the mute switch works as suggested by my cartoon wiring diagram.

But software intermediation gives us the opportunity for a switch to have a richer meaning, and that’s what Apple chose for the iPhone’s mute switch. Several commenters on Andy’s post (and Ben Brooks) have written about a very handy use of the phone’s not-quite-mute button: turning off all sounds from text messages and emails overnight, but still sounding your wakeup alarm in the morning. This is the kind of flexibility that only software can give you, and those who’ve internalized the workings of the mute switch—those who don’t think mute means M-U-T-E, as Andy wrote—get a better experience out of their phones because of it.

On a peripheral issue, Andy’s Case A, in which a user mutes his phone for a meeting or a movie and forgets to unmute it afterward, gives me another chance to point out a particular annoyance of mine: the lack of a timed mute function on the iPhone. A timed mute function would let a user tell her phone “Be quiet for the next two hours and then go back to normal.” I’ve been wanting this on the iPhone ever since I got it. I’ve wished for it on Twitter,

The multitasking app I want is one that mutes the phone for a given length of time. No need to remember to unmute after a movie or meeting.
  — Dr. Drang (@drdrang) Thu Apr 8 2010

and in a Home Screens post at David Sparks’s place

What is the app you are still missing?

I still want a timer app that mutes the phone for a set period of time. I use the mute switch when I go into a meeting or a movie, but I almost always forget to unmute it when I leave. A timer would be the perfect solution. (Maybe there’s one I haven’t heard of?)

The free-with-service-contract Nokia candy bar phone I had ages ago had such a feature, and it was great. That the iPhone didn’t have it right from the start will always be a mystery to me.