Calls vs. iPhone

31 May 2020, by Aadi

If an iPhone receives a call when its alarm is still ringing, then the alarm stops and ringer takes over. I think it is reasonable to expect the alarm to resume when the phone stops ringing.
As of iOS 13, it doesn’t. Not even if the ringer was silenced.

I imagine a lot of people rely on phones as their only wake-up alarm. It is incredible how the alarm loses its purpose because of an innocuous call. iOS makes no further effort to get your attention.
The iOS Human Interface Guidelines beg to differ (as I interpret them, anyway):

Resume audio playback when appropriate after an interruption occurs. Sometimes, currently playing audio is interrupted by audio from a different app. Temporary interruptions such as incoming phone calls are considered resumable. Permanent interruptions, such as a music playlist initiated by Siri, are considered nonresumable. When a resumable interruption occurs, your app should resume playback when the interruption ends if audio was actively playing when the interruption started. For example, a game playing a soundtrack and a media app in the process of playing audio should both resume.

Music, podcasts, and audio from most other apps does resume after a call interrupts them, but an alarm (or timer) does not. It doesn’t make sense: one would expect an alarm to be more persistent than not. The screen does, in fact, return to how it was — with the Snooze and Stop button — but there is no sound and no vibration.1.

Preparing for the worst

Multiple redundant alarms will actually help here. No matter how persistent the pesky caller is, at least one of the many alarms will be able to last long enough.

For the iPhone, as of now, there’s no real solution. You can choose to turn on Do Not Disturb as the primary measure.2 Make sure to turn off Silence: Only when iPhone is locked.

There are just mitigations, though. Once the phone is ringing, the worst has already happened — you are interrupted even if you don’t pick up. For me, only being able to choose whether I want the call to interrupt what I am doing would be a satisfactory resolution.3

It’s not just alarms

Here’s the thing that boggles me: alarms don’t handle an interruption due to a call properly and they should be implemented better; but it also begs the question: why are calls able to interrupt hostilely in the first place?

Consider what happens if you were recording a video when someone calls you. iOS will stop recording and save the file. Yes, that means a random telemarketer has the ability to ruin your video. Surely you weren’t trying to capture a fleeting moment with the best video camera you have at the time, because somebody has to urgently talk to you about getting a new SIM card!
Timers also are vulnerable to calls exactly like alarms are.

iOS interjects by filling the whole screen for the call UI, with hardly any respect for what was going on. This is worse than dial-up modems. At least they had a legitimate technical reason for incoming calls disrupting connections.

An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator

If the iPhone was designed to be an iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator in a single device, why does it still behave as if it’s a phone first and everything else after?

Maybe this is just because iOS is not keeping up with the way we use iPhones now. Our (so-called) phones are being relied upon to do so much more – taking pictures, making payments, playing games, watching video, fitness tracking, and getting driving directions, to name a few. One can make the case for why calls shouldn’t be allowed to take over the screen while doing any of the above.

There’s good news. Alarms and timers used to interrupt the same way calls do, but now they show just a notification if unlocked. No other component of the OS unexpectedly covers up the screen in iOS 13 (as far as I know).4 Siri and the shutdown UI are user-initiated so can be forgiven.

I won’t be surprised if a new call UI debuts alongside a new Siri UI that also doesn’t take up the whole screen every time. I imagine it will be something that looks like the AirPods pairing card. Maybe this all-new UI will displace the whole screen upwards, similar to how Reachability brings the whole screen down.

UPDATE: iOS 14 actually displays the new call UI at the top, like a notification, while the new Siri UI is an overlay the bottom. There are no screen takeovers any more, I appreciate this change. That said, the rest still stands – calls and timers still do silence alarms permanently.

Make hay while the sun shines

Let me make this clear: It is simply unacceptable that an incoming call has the power to silence ringing alarms and timers, and cease video recordings. However, it is what we have. Why not make this feature useful while we have it?

Any pseudo-remote control is useful as an accessibility feature. Instead of needing to reach a device, one can at least silence it easily from afar by making it ring.

That said, I now present to you a list of possible scenarios that will make you appreciate this feature:

  • The noisy phone isn’t recognising your finger.
  • A different phone is closer to you than the one whose alarm has gone off.
  • Fearing an infection, you think twice about touching somebody else’s phone, but you want it to stop annoying you.
  • You, or someone you live with, uses alarms for the job meant for reminders.
  • Having forgotten your phone at home while you are on a trip, its alarm is driving your neighbours crazy.

I wonder how we will handle the last one when iOS no longer behaves this way.

  1. It will still require you to press Stop or Snooze before you can use your phone, however. It is nothing more than a formality. ↩︎

  2. Contacts with Emergency Bypass will still be able to get through, but that is the whole point of Emergency Bypass↩︎

  3. Android shows just a heads-up notification. There are chances iOS 14 may adapt that, and it is a change I’m looking forward to. ↩︎

  4. Also the grey carrier notifications that show prepaid balance or data usage, or the occasional promotional messages. ↩︎