What does a mute switch mean for the iPad?

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This post was migrated from a former home. Its contents are all but forgotten, but are kept for posterity's sake. 

Contrary to popular belief, re-mapping a hardware control is not unheard-of for Apple. For example, F9 through F12 on my MacBook Pro are still Exposé in my muscle memory, but now when I want quick access to my desktop, I often turn down the volume. When iOS 4 came out, it took me at least a week to stop double-clicking the home button and expecting my favorite contacts. One could even argue that the separation of Play/Pause and Select on the Apple remote falls into this category. Needless to say, each of these were minor or secondary for their respective hardware/software pairs. 

When it comes to the orientation lock versus mute switch debate, the change is a bigger deal because: 1) it’s a complete (primary) re-mapping of the hardware controller, 2) this is a hardware controller that’s used quite often, 3) it doesn’t come with any customizable options in Settings.app, and 4) to many, it seems more logical to have the orientation lock than mute switch because muting can be achieved by holding the volume-down button.

One of the simplest explanations for the change is to make the iPad’s hardware controls consistent with the iPhone. Perhaps that’s it, but there are enough arguments against this to indicate something else. 

For one, why not give the user a choice? Add an option in the General settings that allows me to choose between mute and orientation. This isn’t unheard of; we used to have a few options for what a double-click on the iPhone’s home button would trigger. The multitasking tray obviates the option for customization, however users with disabilities (or anyone really) still have the option to specify accessibility options when they triple-click the home button. 

Further, in what situations would a user typically need a mute-button? 1) turning off sound preemptively when you’re reminded (e.g. prompted at a movie theater, or in an auditorium), and 2) hurriedly silencing a disruptive ring or recurring alert. 

But neither of these use-cases are terribly important on an iPad. For one, none of the alerts, to my knowledge, are recurring on the iPad — there’s not even a built-in alarm clock app that can be set, forgotten, and accidentally go off at an undesired time. 

The differences in common usage between the iPad and iPhone may serve as the best argument for keeping the orientation lock. Apple went to great lengths to make the iPad usable from any angle, and encourages developers to do the same with their apps. The orientation is a primary concern for iPad users — users are more likely to be using it while lying on their side, or presenting to others, not wanting slight motions to trigger rotation. Sound is secondary on the iPad for the reasons mentioned above, whereas with an iPhone, orientation is a secondary concern, and sound is primary. 

But how does all of this explain the choice to change the switch’s function? While there seems to be little logic for it now, the future may hold the answer:

Facetime.

I claim no profundity in supposing that Facetime will be a feature in the next iteration of the iPad, but this doesn’t only add new camera hardware to the iPad, it brings new use-cases to the table.

Video calls are the first scenario — at least the first to be built-in — where an alert may arrive and recur on the iPad, causing a disruption for anyone around it. Now, it may be true that if you poll iPhone 4 users, they’ll tell you the number of times they’ve received Facetime calls out of the blue is very low, but there are a few differences between the iPhone and iPad that can explain this.

While Facetime is currently WiFi-only, all iPhone 4’s come with built-in 3G antennas, and it’s reasonable to assume that iPhones spend a majority of their time connected to cell towers, not WiFi networks. The iPad, however, is available in a WiFi-only model, and while I don’t believe any sales breakdowns are public, my insights and observations would lead me to make an educated guess that the WiFi-only models have a majority, if only for their lower price points. Further, the majority of iPad use is likely to happen in areas where WiFi is available and connected: at home, in a business meeting, during a lecture — connected to home WiFi, corporate WiFi, school WiFi. It’s reasonable to assume that even users with WiFi+3G iPads would be connected to the the local wireless network in each of these cases. 

And so it becomes easier to imagine a user in a classroom, or a business meeting with their iPad, when a video call begins to ring – loudly – and there’s an urgent need to silence it. Whereas previously a single incoming mail message or calendar reminder is only disruptive in the most serious of situations, a ringtone becomes a bigger issue.

This changes the need for muting from secondary to primary. At the very least, it brings some alignment between the iPhone and iPad, and adds justification to the idea of making the mappings consistent between the two. 

But why now? Facetime doesn’t exist on current iPads, and without the new cameras, this won’t affect them even when the new generation comes out. All true, unless future versions of Facetime (or another built-in app) offer VoIP calling. But I take the timing and definitive nature of their choice to be indicative of what’s coming and how Apple sees the iPad being used in the future.

Although it seems logical, the full reason may not be as simple as Facetime. I used that example because it is readily available, and Apple has already shown an interest in expanding the platform with the introduction of Facetime for Mac. I certainly can’t say I know what’s planned, just that these changes seem to indicate some future justification that puts the mute switch above an orientation lock.

If Apple waits to switch this mapping until next-generation hardware launches, they’ll have a few choices. They can leave first-generation devices as they are, but this leaves them maintaining a line of products that have different mappings for the same hardware switch, leading to confusion (albeit minor) for users, but also leaving Apple looking a bit less graceful than most people expect them to be. They can make the change for all devices, and have an even larger, more diverse, and more conditioned user-base that needs to adapt then, rather than now. Or they could introduce the option within Settings.app and allow the user to decide what their primary concern is. 

The fact that Apple has chosen to make a definitive choice on this, and make it now, indicates a few things to me: 

  1. Apple is worried about making this change later and having an even larger, more diverse user-base that needs to re-learn one of the five hardware controls on their simple device. Given expectations for the iPad sales during the holiday quarter, this is understandable.
  2. More importantly, Apple has made the definitive distinction that mute is going to be a more important concern than orientation for iPad users going forward. This is interesting because it implies that they have something in the pipeline that will make it so.