A little over a month ago the New York Times reported on an incident that occurred at the New York Philharmonic on November 9 of last year. During the final measures of Mahler's Symphony Number 9, the unmistakable sound of the marimba iPhone alarm tone disrupted the performance and continued well past the usual few seconds it takes for someone to silence an offending device. This iPhone was particularly distracting because the racket was emanating from the front row. The conductor halted the performance until it was silenced. (Kudos to him for having the courage to tackle such an offense head on.) Finally, the gentleman to whom the offending phone belonged figured out that it was indeed him who was causing the incident and he silenced the phone. According to the New York Times, the man was horrified that he had disrupted the performance and claimed that he had only been given the iPhone the day before and did not know that an alarm had been set to go off. To his credit, he had toggled the ringer mute switch to silence the iPhone before the performance but had no idea that an alarm would sound even if the switch was set to mute.
This gentleman learned the hard way that toggling an iPhone's ringer mute switch does just that - it silences the ringer and all other alert tones save one. The exception is an alarm set to fire in the built in clock app. I almost learned this lesson the hard way myself not long after getting the original iPhone. I was on my way into a funeral and had set my iPhone to mute well before entering the church but several feet from the sanctuary doors my iPhone started playing the scifi alarm tone. I had the alarm set to go off each weekday to remind me to pick up my oldest son from school. Because of the funeral, I had made arrangements for my wife to pick him up but the alarm was still set to go off. Thankfully the alarm went off before the funeral and not during it, but my close encounter prompted me to research the behavior of the iPhone ringer mute switch and learn that alarms overide the mute setting. Since that time, if I need to be absolutely sure that my phone is going to be silent, I either turn the phone completely off or disable all pending alarms in the clock app.
The New York Philharmonic incident set off an intense conversation among the iPhone faithful and Apple pundits. Everyone was asking "what is the correct behavior of the iPhone ringer mute switch?" The answers were varied and many of them were quite thoughtful and well articulated. I particuarly appreciated posts by John Gruber, Andy Ihnatko, and Marco Arment. All of them raise great points and arrive at valid conclusions regarding how and why Apple designed the iPhone ringer mute switch the way they did. That said, the emphasis in most of the discussions I read or heard was on how Apple could have or should have designed the ringer mute switch. This seems to place most of the responsibility back on Apple.
However, isn't it fair to examine our responsibility as users? Shouldn't we know how to operate the devices we carry on a daily basis? If we can't or won't take the responsibility to learn the essentials of their operation should we even be carrying them? If my iphone alarm had gone of during that funeral I'm not sure I could have shifted the blame away from myself and onto Apple. That would be like driving a convertable through a car wash with the top down and expecting someone else to get wet. I don't think angry funeral attendees would have welcomed a cry of "Don't blame me. It's the fault of those wacky Apple designers." They would have seen it as my fault. They would have seen it as my responsibility to know how to operate my phone and to have the good sense to mute it given the setting I was in. To his credit, the gentleman whose iPhone alarm went off during the concert personally apologized to the conductor and the New York Philharmonic. He took responsibility for not knowing his phone well enough to prevent the disruption. I wish I had heard more of this kind of reasoning in the excellent discussions of ringer mute switch design that followed the incident. In the end, the buck stops with users - the people who buy the phones and carry them wherever they go.