Every cell phone should have a physical mute switch

Published: January 22, 2012

You're sitting in a perfectly quiet room, minding your own business, maybe even paying attention someone speaking with intent and honest to goodness interest. Then ... it happens. Your phone fires off a ringtone, full blast. The entire world watches as you scramble to hit the mute switch and silence the ringer. Everything stops, time slows to a crawl and no matter what you do, it's as if the ringer just won't shut off.

It's happened to us all. Maybe not exactly as I've described, or necessarily in that order. But at some point or another, we all have had one of those embarrassing moments when our cell phone goes off at the worst and most inconvenient time, catching us off guard and making us look like an inconsiderate fool in front of a crowd of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people.

Recently, this very thing has happened to two unlucky individuals during some of the worst times possible.

The first victim was an individual who was attending a New York Philharmonic performance when his iPhone alarm sounded. Turns out, the guy had flipped the mute switch on his iPhone. But being new to iOS, he was unaware that the alarm would still sound white the Ring/Silent switch is toggled. There is less info on the second guy, but his classic Nokia ringtone fired off in the middle of a violinist's performance, who decided to brushed it off by playing the ringtone back to the audience with his violin. (Well played, sir.)

The thing is, this doesn't just happen at performances. It happens everywhere, every single day – at the movies, at the dinner table and every other seemingly rude place imaginable.

I recall this happening to me countless times through high school, where cell phones of any and all kinds were strictly forbidden. It always seemed to harped right during the middle of lecture or while everyone was dead silent, working on some class work. Luckily, I was generally good friends with my classmates and we could all play it off as if nothing happened. But I have always had a fear of my cell phones or tablets unexpectedly going off – despite being muted – in the middle of a test, in church or at other somber events. When the occasion is serious enough, I don't take the risk and I either power down my devices or remove the batteries entirely.

The recent take on this matter from the media coverage is that something should be done, a safeguard should be put in place, to help stifle this ongoing and ever-increasing nuisance. Some try to dismiss it as simply "something we have to deal with in the cell phone era." Point blank, though, it's generally negligence or ignorance on the owner's part, and it shouldn't happen nearly as often as it does.

So what should be done?

For starters, every phone should come with a physical mute switch. Not just some phones, not most phones. All phones. Not everyone will agree with this, obviously. Personally, however, this is one of my favorite features of the iPhone. Being able to definitively toggle between silent/vibrate and ringtones is a no-brainer and fathoms better than solely having a standard volume rocker. On the Galaxy Nexus, for instance, I like to keep it on vibrate. But the volume buttons are so sensitive and easily pressed that the volume and vibrate/silent states are constantly changing. I will think my phone is silenced and BAM, it blasts a ringtone out of nowhere instead of vibrating.

Slapping a switch on every phone won't solve the problem, though. The guy at the New York Philharmonic learned that the hard way. The question many journalists have been asking is whether such physical toggle switches should completely override all software notifications, or if, like the iPhone, the alarm should take precedence over a hardware "mute" switch.

While the answer might seem pretty straight-forward, it's a tricky topic. Override all notifications with a hardware switch and people will begin oversleeping, missing appointments, etc. Leave things the way they are, and people will continue to rudely interrupt performers, movies, dinner and whatever else possible with those pesky ringtones. Jim Biancolo suggests there should be middle ground:

"I’d vote for silencing everything when you mute the phone, but pop a warning if you mute the phone with alarms pending. Or maybe a warning that lets you choose whether you want to also silence alarms or not?"

I imagine a pop-up appearing every time you flip the mute switch would get pretty annoying, but I agree with Biancolo. That way, if every phone had a mute switch and prompted people to silence all alarms when switched to silent (regardless of operating system), it would be totally on the owner of the device it if fired off at an inappropriate time. In dire enough cases, such as a New York Philharmonic performance, for example, that person could then be removed for negligence to follow rules of common courtesy.

Android already has this option, but it's buried deep in the Clock app settings and few Android devices have physical mute switches anyway.

It's certainly a sticky situation where everyone is going to take sides. My vote goes to every phone having a physical mute switch with user-definable alarm silencing on the fly. It seems like a pretty simple to me. What say you, folks? Should every phone have a mute switch? Should it silence all notifications and alarms? Or would that cause too many problems with missed alarms?

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