MOST films or performances Babbage has attended in the past decade or so were spoiled by somebody’s mobile-phone ringtone. Readers everywhere must have had plenty of similar experiences. So they would no doubt applaud the actions of Alan Gilbert at a recent performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by the New York Philharmonic, which he conducts. According to eyewitnesses, including Michael Jo, who was early in spreading the news via the blog thousandfold echo, a persistent musical tootle from a mobile (iPhone’s “marimba” tune) so infuriated the maestro that he halted his musicians. The audience backed Mr Gilbert, heckling the ring offender, who silenced the phone in embarrassment. Mr Gilbert apologised for stopping, received thunderous applause, backed his musicians up a bit to a more vigorous movement, and went on without further mishaps.
The story spread around the world, no doubt because it touches a universal nerve. The New York Times reported that the gentleman in question, interviewed by the newspaper but not named, had received a brand new company iPhone a day before the concert, replacing his BlackBerry smartphone. An alarm had been set accidentally, it appears, and he was only able to silence it after much fumbling in his pocket. A spokeswoman for the Philharmonic told Babbage that the hapless interrupter, a front-row season subscriber, is mortified, and that the orchestra and staff feel for him. (Mr Gilbert declined requests for an interview, having apparently spoken more about the event than his schedule allows.)
The problem is that although most people are minded to silence their mobile phones during performances, alarms are often designed to make a racket regardless of whether the phone is in silent mode (some even sound when the device is powered down). In 2007 Apple’s late boss, Steve Jobs, touted the original iPhone’s mute switch in 2007, which could be without messing with menus (though the device can also be unintentionally unmuted in a pocket). But alarms override the mute function.
Donald Norman, a guru of usable design and a former Apple and HP executive, says that there have been proposals to design phones to detect a signal disseminated in a performance space that instructed the phone to mute itself. (Suggestions involving signal blockers are no use against alarms, and are in any case banned by telecoms regulators.) He notes that the vibration mode is of little help. After all, the vibrations need to be significant enough to rouse a mobile’s owner, and creating them produces sound. Perhaps, Mr Norman suggests facetiously, concertgoers ought be frisked before entering a theatre.
Maybe it won’t come to that. Modern smartphones can use satellite-navigation and Wi-Fi network information to determine location indoors. They also have an array of sensors for noise, light and movement. It shouldn’t be too difficult to teach an operating system to suppress all alerts when, say, it discerns live music at the same time as locating itself in Avery Fisher Hall (the New York Philharmonic’s home).
For now, though, vigilance remains the only safeguard—albeit not a foolproof one. Mr Norman, doubtless a sophisticated user, admits that even he can’t disable all sounds on his phone; every once in a while, the blasted device beeps. One can only hope it doesn’t choose to do so at an inopportune time. Like the adagio of Mahler’s Ninth.