The Silent Switch — C'mon Apple

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Brian Janelli, Senior Director, Global Creative at AdColony

Brian Janelli, Senior Director, Global Creative at AdColony

We’ve all been there. You’re taking a quick mental break at work, leaning back in your chair and scrolling through social media feeds, maybe even to see what your colleagues were up to last weekend. You check your iPhone’s ringer switch – it’s off.

All of a sudden there’s a blast of sound emanating from your phone. Heads turn. You hear a snicker from the corner of the office, someone who’s thinking, “Caught!” You panic and start jamming hard on the volume-down button on your phone, completely confused as to why that particular video triggered sound, but others didn’t.

You’re not alone. Thousands – millions – experience this same embarrassment every day. The reason? It’s surprising, yet also not surprising. In the old days, before iOS5, there were ways developers could determine the state of the ring/vibrate switch and have their videos act accordingly. The sound was effectively off. With the rise of HTML5 video (more on that later), and a significant change that came with iOS 5, that’s no longer the case, and many developers haven’t adjusted.

iOS no longer “tells” apps which volume the phone is set at. That is until it plays an audio file (e.g., music, video). At that point, it’s almost as if the phone is saying, “OK, we’re going to play music now. How shall we deal with this?”

Their reasoning is clear when you look at it from Apple’s perspective. Apple sees it as the “ringer” switch. When it’s set to off, the ringer on the phone (to clarify: when you get an incoming call, text or push notification) will not function; it will vibrate instead. To Apple, the volume buttons are what users should control volume with. Users, however, still see that switch above the volume buttons as the “mute” button. Most users believe that it effectively mutes all sounds on our phone.

This is not the case – but it is, in some cases.

Confused? Here’s the deal: Some audio sources are muted by iOS when this switch is flipped to “silent.” Ad units, for instance, will play sound when there is a website available to it. This means HTML5 video and HTML5 audio methods do provide sound, regardless of the switch’s position.

Still, it’s not that simple; when you start to look at factors like programmatic, each of these is different from the other. For instance, for web audio API playback, you can programmatically set the volume level, but for the others, you cannot.

There are workarounds, of course. As an advertiser, you can arrange your campaign so that you play a silent file, one that doesn’t make any noise, to gauge or trigger the response in iOS. Some ad networks already do this for you. That way, you can prepare the device for the audio file that will play.

Developers, we know you’re not getting the information you need to ensure a positive user experience; when you build apps that integrate audio, it’s not clear whether or not that audio will actually play. But whichever integrations you’re using for advertising, be sure to build against the latest version of iOS, because as you know, things change fast, and the only action you can take is to stay updated on the nuances of each technology platform you’re working on.

And users — my message to you is simple. Don’t trust your apps to know what you mean by “mute” or “vibrate only.” If you really don’t want to disturb your colleagues, your partner sleeping next to you in bed, or hey, even the people next to you in the bathroom stall, hold down the volume button. It’s better to be safe than sorry.