Services & Software

Blame Nokia? Multiuser accounts a no-go on Android phones

TechCrunch speculates support for multiple users is limited to Android tablets because Nokia owns a patent for that technology. But the Finnish handset maker says it actually abandoned that patent application several years ago.

Google's Nexus 10 has many new features, including the ability to have multiple accounts.
Nokia may be to blame for limitations on multiple user accounts in Google's latest Android update, according to a report.

Google yesterday unveiled Android 4.2, an updated version of Jelly Bean that will come preinstalled on the company's new line of Nexus devices. One of the big features of the OS is the ability to add multiple user accounts. However, it will only work on tablets, and TechCrunch is speculating that's because Nokia owns the patents for such a feature on phones.

However, Nokia says it actually abandoned its application for such a patent several years ago. A Nokia spokesman also told CNET that Google hasn't approached the company to license any of Nokia's patents for Android devices.

A Google spokesman, meanwhile, said the company has nothing to announce at this time with regard to extending multiuser functionality to phones.

The tablet-optimized version of Android 4.2 gives users their own home screens, backgrounds, widgets, apps, and other features, making it simple to switch between accounts right from the lock screen. Because tablets are often shared among family members, this feature could give Android devices an edge over the iPad, which can only support and sync to a single user account.

Here's how the Nokia patent application US 2005/0107114 A1, called "multi-user mobile telephone," was described. It said an ex-Symbian employee, Tim Ocock, invented the feature:

A mobile telephone is designed to be used by several different end-users at different times. A first end-user can alter the mobile telephone so that it operates in a manner specific to that first end-user and a subsequent end-user can alter the mobile telephone so that it operates in a manner specific to that subsequent end-user; wherein each end-user has only to respond to prompts displayed on a screen in order to alter the mobile telephone so that it operates in a manner specific to that end-user.

An image from Nokia's patent application:

An image from Nokia's patent application. Google

And here's how Google describes the feature:

With support for multiple users, you can give each person their own space. Everyone can have their own homescreen, background, widgets, apps and games -- even individual high scores and levels! And since Android is built with multitasking at its core, it's a snap to switch between users -- no need to log in and out. Available only on tablets.

As Nokia doesn't own a patent for this functionality, it's unclear why the feature is limited to tablets. It could just be because there's not a big demand for it on phones right now. They're typically more personal devices owned by a single person.

Updated at 7:40 a.m. PT on Nov. 1 with comments from Nokia and Google. See the follow-up story, "Nokia not blocking multiple users on Android phones."