There has been a lot of conversation about the iPhone mute switch in recent weeks as a result of this article.
The mute switch disables all audio except alarms. Some people argue that the mute should disable all audio or that this behaviour should at least be configurable. Turning off all audio allows the possibility of forgetting about it and missing an important alarm. Making it configurable only makes the situation more complex, and user error more likely. Neither of these choices is a good option. It’s a difficult problem which John Gruber summarises nicely.
I think that the current iOS mute switch behaviour is perfectly fine and I often have my iPhone on mute. The feature that I think is missing that would resolve this situation is a “do not disturb” mode.
Imagine that you have a “Do-Not-Disturb” (DND) Mode switch in the Settings App below the Airplane Mode switch. Similar to the way that Airplane Mode disables all networking, DND Mode disables all audio but only for a limited time. When you enable DND Mode, you are presented with a menu to select a time period: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, 3 hours, 6 hours. Once the time period expires, the phone automatically turns DND Mode off. This avoids the possibility of the user accidentally forgetting that they enabled it. (People don’t forget to turn Airplane Mode off because the cabin crew of the plane remind them of it during the post-landing announcements.)
If there is an incoming call while in DND Mode, the phone makes no sound, but vibrates and activates the screen to show the call just as it does in mute. This allows the user a chance to receive critical calls if necessary. If a call is answered (or if the user initiates their own call), then audio is enabled only for the Phone app for the duration of the call.
DND Mode could also be activated using Siri. More flexible time periods could be specified using Siri as well.
“Do not disturb me for 30 minutes.”
“Do not disturb me until 4pm.”
“Don’t disturb me for an hour.”
“I am not to be disturbed for the next 2 hours.”
And if you use location services:
“I am not to be disturbed me until I have left this theatre.”
“Do not disturb me until I get home.”
The described Do-Not-Disturb Mode gives the user more control over their iPhone while reducing the number of things that the user has to worry about. By requiring the user to specify not only what the phone has to do but when it has to stop doing it, the phone now has the responsibility for it instead of the user. And isn’t this what science-fiction has always been promising us? A world where computers perform the mundane tasks and free our minds?