The biggest game changer from Amazon's Kindle Fire announcement yesterday wasn't the pricing, dual WiFi antennas or Dolby Digital Plus sound. Rather, it was that Amazon became the first major tablet maker to allow different people to have their own accounts on the same device.
Think how commonplace this is for traditional personal computers. Mac or Windows, both platforms allow multiple people to use the same machine, logging in with different accounts that are linked to their own settings, data, applications and perhaps even special restrictions. But for tablets, it's been the dark ages.
I've found it so annoying that about a year ago, I wrote a post about how the lack of multiple account support was a sign of Apple and Amazon hating families when it came to tablets. I was exaggerating, of course. But it sure felt like they could do more to cater to family needs when it came to tablets.
Amazon took a big step forward in improving things for families with Kindle FreeTime. It's not perfect. It's not even true account switching. But it's a good start, and one that I hope we'll see both Apple and Google follow with. It'll also help more than families, as I'll explain. But first, how FreeTime works.
FreeTime is designed to allow parents easy control over what their children can do on a Kindle Fire. Each child can have their own profile, which in turn has access only to the videos, books, games and apps that parents have selected.
For example, say you were "Jacob" and selected your profile as shown in the screenshot above, of the Kindle FreeTime home screen. After entering your profile's password, it would then be activated. Below is an example of how your books would appear:
The blue color indicates that the Kindle Fire is in FreeTime mode. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos semi-joked when explaining the color yesterday that it's designed so a parent can easily tell the device is in protective mode when watching their child use it from across the room. Once it's activated, the child can't exit the mode. A parent, using a password, has to do that.
FreeTime also allows parents to set time limits for how long kids can read books, play apps, watch videos or use the Kindle Fire overall:
If you want a short glimpse of FreeTime in action, Android Central has a nice video of it being demoed below:
FreeTime is coming to all the, from the high-end Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch 4G LTE version down to the non-HD Kindle Fire.
Yes, even the new version of the basic Kindle Fire is getting FreeTime, as promised on its product page. What's not clear is whether owners of the original Kindle Fire will have their devices upgraded to include it.
No one I spoke to from Amazon at the press event yesterday knew. I have a question in to the Amazon press department about this. I'll update when I hear back.
The shift from blocking content to allowing it
As explained, parents pick which specific books, videos, games and apps are made available to their children. This new "allow" system -- a sharp departure from the "block" method used by current Kindle e-readers, the current Kindle Fire and the iPad -- is a welcome change for parents.
For example, my wife and I both have separate Kindle accounts. Our two boys ask to us to buy e-books for them. In turn, to read those books, they need to use one of our Kindles. That gives them access to any of the books we might have already downloaded to our Kindles, rather than just the ones we specifically want them to read.
There are workarounds to this. The easiest is for kids to have their own Kindles tied to a parent's account, but ones in which access to the Kindle Store and Archived Items has been blocked. You can do this using Parental Controls, under Settings. Once this is done, parents can purchase the specific books they want for their children from the Amazon web site and send only those to the child's Kindle.
It's more complicated when you're dealing with the Kindle Fire, which provides access to content beyond books. That requires more blocking, which is why the use of Kindle FreeTime profiles is a much more elegant solution. With FreeTime, rather than having to think about what to block generally, the mindset shifts to specific content the parent wants to allow.
Want your children to be able to read "The Hunger Games?" Add that book to their profiles without having to worry they'll somehow find their way to your copy of "50 Shades Of Grey." Want them to be able to play Angry Birds and not other games? Add only that game to their profiles. Don't want them watching all the video your Amazon Prime account allows? Pick only what you want them to see.
Of course, the iPad has a wide range of restrictions that can be set, as shown to the right. You can completely block some apps like Safari or restrict access to apps based on age ratings. Age ratings can also be used to restrict access to movies and TV shows. Music deemed explicit in nature can be blocked.
But who wants to review all these things? There are over 20 main restriction choices for the iPad, with further decisions within some choices, such as which specific movie ratings to allow. I think it's far easier to think of the particular books, videos, games or apps you want to allow access to, though in some cases, it's nice to have global blocking restrictions.
At least the iPad has restriction options, unlike Google's Nexus 7 tablet, which lacks any comprehensive restriction controls that I can find. Yes, Google Play can filter out content by maturity level. But that filter is to prevent certain apps from being downloaded, not to block access to apps already on a device.
The need for real account logins
This brings me back to Kindle FreeTime, and how while it's a big improvement, it's not the full step we really need for tablets. Consider this:
That's another example of the Jacob profile being used, this time with the profile's favorite content exposed at the bottom of the screen. While the parent decides what content should be allowed, children still have the ability to create their own favorites list. That's a hint toward the full account switching that tablets could use.
I've been to any number of tablet and phone launches, and often the demo people are hesitant to hand you their devices to play with. This is often because they're using their own personal devices, with access to things like their contact lists or their email.
A "guest" mode would solve this problem, not just for those doing demos but for anyone who wants to loan their tablet to someone else. Using a guest account, someone could access allowed apps or other content without messing with the owner's stuff. Ideally, tablets would go a step further and allow for multiple user accounts that are linked back to respective app stores.
That's helpful especially for families with older children, who might have grown into having their own Amazon, iTunes or Google Play accounts complete with their own collection of books, videos, games or apps. If there's one device shared by several in a family, user accounts would allow each person to login to their own content.
Kindle FreeTime is a good start toward this path, for tablets. Let's hope it keeps evolving on the Kindle Fire and spreads to other tablets (there are hints multi-account support is coming to Android), so that we can have user accounts like we're used to on our PCs and Macs.
And while I'm wishing, how about the ability to transfer books, videos, apps or games permanently from one account to another? When you buy content for your kids before they're allowed to have their own accounts, it would be nice to transfer it to them when they're older. I've got more to say on that and transferring purchases in general, but that's for a future column.
Postscript: Thanks to Quantus11 below who notes the Sony Xperia S due out this month has a guest mode (see our CNET of it). I hadn't seen this. I still give Amazon credit for big the first major maker to bring this to the tablet space, since Sony isn't in the top five of makers within the US. But I'm very happy to see it on the Sony.