Two of my least-favourite sounds generally occur in a sequence, one straight after the other. The first is a shrill ringtone, perhaps a tinny version of "Is This The Way To Amarillo", in a peaceful context where shrill sounds are generally frowned upon. The second is that very British chorus of low-level tutting and sighing that follows it, the sound of weary disapproval, of "I would never do that".
Except, of course, it happens to nearly all of us; we're all capable of missing that reminder to turn off our phones before the film starts, and at the theatre we're all at risk of being shouted at by Kevin Spacey as he breaks character to admonish us when our phone goes off. These things happen because smartphones and their irritating tones are ubiquitous. We forget we are carrying them, and we forget to turn them off.
"One problem with the ubiquity of these devices in so many different environments is that their use is not appropriate in all settings," states a patent application from Microsoft for an "Inconspicuous Mode for mobile devices", granted this week by the US Patent Office. It's unclear why a patent would have been granted for an idea that it filed two years ago when a number of apps were already capable of doing this stuff – but anyway: in summary, said mode can automatically dim the screen, turn off the sound and change notification settings when triggered by various criteria.
They might be as simple as the phone determining that you're in a theatre, or that you're connected to a certain Wi-Fi network, or that your calendar shows that you're going to be at a funeral. This is all capable of being overridden by the user, but in theory it lessens the likelihood of personal embarrassment. Inconspicuous Mode, rather sweetly, tries to help with social etiquette.
Context-aware computing is old news; it used to refer specifically to the way in which the location of a device affected its operation, but the complexity of the smartphone adds other stuff to the mix. It can flip the screen when you hold it upside down, turn notifications off if you're driving faster than 10mph, and so on.
It only takes a few relatively simple lines of code to implement a whole heap of "if… then" scenarios, eg, if the ambient temperature drops below freezing, play "Let It Snow" by Dean Martin. Apps such as Tasker (for Android) and Situations (for Symbian) already enable exactly this kind of thing; you can painstakingly set up all kinds of triggers based on various contexts.
The problem is that tweaking these triggers to suit our everyday behaviour is phenomenally dull and really appeals only to those who punch the air when computers do what they're told, or enjoy being relieved of the burden of tasks that aren't that burdensome. In any case, we don't really trust them to work. Our nervousness about the reliability of such technology means that any system designed to mute and dim our phone in a darkened cinema would prompt us to check that it's been muted and dimmed, thus making the whole system faintly pointless.
Of course, automated systems in smartphones will get cleverer, but it's always going to be hard for them to make blanket decisions about social acceptability. So, until they become sentient, this stuff is probably best left to our own errant memories and judgement. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to take this call.