Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Another iPad problem, or rather a 'feature' -- the mute switch

I ran into another issue on the Apple iPad that is another interesting reflection on software and Man-Machine Interface issues that are becoming more and more prevalent and important in our lives.

It appeared that all of a sudden several of my video playback apps on my iPads quit playing audio. The video was streaming fine, but in total silence. Being a standard human user, I immediately and it turns out incorrectly jumped to the conclusion that the apps that were silent had some type of bug.

After taking a step back and turning my 'logic brain' back on, what I have found is that the apps that were silent are the ones working correctly. And the combination of my incorrect operation of a new function on the iPad and other apps incorrectly ignoring this function is the root cause of the 'silence' I was encountering.

With the new release of the iPad's iOS operating system, Apple changed the function of a small switch on the upper right side of the iPad. The switch is just above the volume up/down buttons. Prior to the 4.2.1 release of iOS, the switch locked the screen orientation, so that rotating the iPad did not cause the screen to change orientation. With the latest release of iOS, this orientation lock function was moved to a software button located in the 'task bar' of the iOS system and the function of the physical switch was change to a sound mute function. Moving the switch to the down position, mutes the sound output. Moving the switch up, un-mutes the iPad and allows the volume up and down buttons to change the sound level.

There has been considerable debate online about these changes in these user interface functions. Even to the extent that for jailbroken iPads, there is a way to put the functions back to their original definition. When I started to use the new functions, I found the new definitions to be more useful, but this one of the challenges that UI developers face, there is NOT one standard way that people are comfortable with.

And I believe that this 'multiple ways of doing things' challenge is what has lead, at least partially, to the problem that I encountered with the sound playback on the iPad.

What I have found, is that there a number of apps that are ignoring the mute switch position and generate sound output regardless of the position of this switch. Apps that are ignoring the mute switch, include Apple's own YouTube app and Netflix. I think the first problem is that there is a way outside the operating system to ignore the switches function. Especially in such a controlled hardware/software environment as the iPhone/iPad world, being able to 'repurpose' this hardware does seem to be a bug from Apple's perspective. Second, is that apps are either ignoring the mute switch on purpose or have failed in their updates to correctly adapt to this change in system level UI functionality.

So what I've found, is that thru my own poor 'ass-umptions' that the apps that were silent were the ones with the problem and due to the combo of apps ignoring the new function and Apple allowing this to occur I see another big occurrence of software causing a lot of consternation in the daily lives of people operating electronic devices. We face some big issues as software continues to rule!


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