The iPhone is beautiful and almost entirely free from buttons. The few hardware buttons present â€“ the power/sleep button on top, the Home button on the bottom, and the volume buttons on the side â€“ are reserved for Appleâ€™s use only. I understand Appleâ€™s perspective on that, particularly when it comes to the power and Home buttons, which each provide a means of shutting an app down. The volume buttons, however, arenâ€™t used to exit an app or lock your phone. And thatâ€™s why I think Apple should, in limited circumstances, allow developers access to the volume buttonsâ€“ specifically, in those situations when use of a hardware button could make app interaction better.
Itâ€™s the Camera+ debacle, of course, that has this issue on my mind. In brief: the developers of the photography app added a secret feature, enabled by visiting a secret URL on your iPhone, that lets you take pictures by using the volume controls (instead of the phoneâ€™s touchscreen) as a shutter button. The theory is that tapping those hardware buttons is less likely to jostle the iPhone at the moment you snap the picture.
Iâ€™ll concede the point argued elsewhere by Macworld contributor Marco Tabini that developers shouldnâ€™t try to sneak a feature in against Appleâ€™s policies. At the same time, though, I think Appleâ€™s policy on third-party access to the volume buttons needs to change, even if for a very narrow use case (e.g., when taking pictures in apps without sound).
Tap Tap Tap, which develops Camera+, only created the hack to re-purpose the volume buttons because its customers were asking for just that feature. Thatâ€™s what makes Appleâ€™s stance so head-scratching. If folks want a feature and are willing to go out of their way to get it, shouldnâ€™t Apple consider it? Allowing developers access to volume controls doesnâ€™t cost Apple or telcos extra money, the way hacked-in tethering could. Instead, the biggest reason not to allow such a feature â€“ indeed, the reason Apple cited when it rejected an earlier version of the Camera+ app â€“ is â€śuser confusionâ€ť.
In general, if users press the volume button, they should know just whatâ€™s going to happen. So I donâ€™t think Apple should simply allow developers to re-purpose the button at whim. Rather, I think that the rule should be this: to re-purpose the volume button, an app must get opt-in permission from the user. In Camera+, that might come in the form of a setting phrased thusly: â€śUse the volume buttons to snap photos.â€ť
Again, I think this option works to resolve Appleâ€™s stated concern about â€śuser confusionâ€ť. The volume buttons retain their standard functionality outside of the app. Thereâ€™s always a mute switch if you need instant volume control. And they only behave differently if the user explicitly asks them to do so in a given app.
Such a change in Appleâ€™s policy wouldnâ€™t be without issue, of course. If you have the iPod app playing music in the background when you launch Camera+, and youâ€™ve enabled the â€śvolume as shutterâ€ť option, you have no easy way to adjust the sound level without exiting the app. I think edge cases like these are solvable though: thereâ€™s also the mute switch. You can double-tap the Home button to bring up the pause button. And thereâ€™s enough extra room on the â€śmultitasking barâ€ť screen that appears when you double tap to add a software volume control (like the one that exists already on the lock screen when you double tap the Home button).
It seems to me that Apple is less concerned with â€śuser confusion,â€ť and more focused on maintaining the â€śpurityâ€ť of the volume buttons â€“ which strikes me as simultaneously goofy and very Apple-like. Itâ€™s not confusion; itâ€™s a desire to maintain the consistent through-line that is often so important to Apple products. But this is one case where I think Appleâ€™s quest for pureness overlooks the even more important need to please customers.