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iPhones and iPads need multi-user support now

Commentary: Multi-user support on the iPad is essential for the classroom, but it's well past time Apple brought it to the masses.

Shared iPad supports at least 20 accounts on a single iPad.
James Martin/CNET

About midway through the March 27 on-stage presentation introducing the new 2018 iPad, Greg Joswiak, Apple's VP of iOS, iPad and iPhone Product Marketing started talking about a software feature called Shared iPad. "Shared iPad allows a student to pick up any iPad off the school cart, tap on their name and once they log in, that iPad becomes their own. With their own apps, their own books and their own documents, ready to go."

"Awesome," I thought. Finally, Apple was introducing multi-user support to the iPad. That would bring Apple into parity with Google, which has had multi-user support on its Android tablets since 2012, and phones since 2014.

Easy multi-user support -- where any student can login to any Chromebook with their Gmail address -- is one reason Google dominates the education market, and Apple's education-themed event was addressing that issue straight on. For classrooms where the students outnumber the available tablets or laptops, it's essential.

But here's the thing: Shared iPad isn't new. It was actually introduced back in March 2016 as a part of iOS 9.3 .

But it's remained restricted to iPads in education settings. It's not available to every customer. And for anyone who shares iPads -- or even iPhones -- with other family members, it's a feature that would go a long way to making iOS devices much more valuable in the home.

6-year-old boy playing with an Iphone, France

"Sure, kid. Go ahead and use my iPhone" is something I won't say until my son has his own profile.

Godong/UIG via Getty

According to Apple, "Shared iPad requires a cloud-based synchronization model for any data required to persist between uses of the app." Which means the feature as-is requires an internet connection. The rest of the info at the previous link also indicates that the feature relies a lot on cloud-based interactions between your iPad and servers.

That makes sense if you need to handle a capacity of 30 or more user accounts on a single iPad. All I'm asking for is four, tops. Five if Apple's feeling generous. That's probably enough to handle most families who maybe can't afford multiple iPads or feel that having more than one is a waste, both monetarily and/or environmentally. 

As parents, my wife and I severely limit our 18 month-old son's exposure to screens. However, we aren't above sticking an iPad in front of him if he's sick, inconsolable and won't eat. This usually allows us to shove at least a few spoonfuls of food into his mouth while he's distracted.

So, the fact that the same iPad I use to read comics and watch Netflix is also sparingly a go-to parenting crutch isn't that much of an issue for me.


Let's throw it on the iPhone too, while we're at it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But it would still be nice if he had his own account I could log into with all his favorites cartoons at the ready. And so he'd be spared from popups from my messaging and news apps.

Multi-user accounts would also be a nice way to justify my next iPad purchase as not just a new toy for dad, but something the whole family could take advantage of!

This would also come in handy with babysitting. I like to have a "if he's completely inconsolable, then break glass" option when I leave my child with someone other than his mother. Instead of having to spend 10 minutes explaining to my mother-in-law how to find the right videos if she needed them, his own curated account would make that infinitely easier.

And while they're at it, let's throw it onto the iPhone too. It's not nearly as highly coveted, but again I'm sure many parents would love to have the option to share their phone with a bored kid and not have to worry about them using their credit cards or seeing any inappropriate sites.

And yes, at the risk of being terribly reductive (especially no doubt to the engineers who'd be responsible for making this happen), it sounds like there are some technical hurdles that need vaulting over before this is a reality for regular iPhone and iPad buyers. And I get that some bean counter at Apple may well veto this because "we'll sell fewer apps" or "we'll sell fewer devices."

Here's the bottom line though. I'm sitting here trying to justify why I need multi-user support on my iPad, while Apple has had this technology available for over a year now. How Apple figures out how to do it isn't my problem. Google handled this years ago. It's well past time Apple caught up. 

Apple declined to comment on this story.

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