✦ Sharing an iPad
On his (always excellent) Cocoanetics weblog, Oliver Drobnik shared his Radar feature request for app and folder locking support. This would allow people to lock arbitrary apps - or folders containing apps - on their iPad.
Multiple reasons are given for this feature request, all of which are worth solving. Most notably:
- Children (often handed an iPad by their parents) can easily exit apps and begin poking around in places they shouldn’t be poking.
- Keeping track of multiple passwords results in a lousy, uneven user experience.
- 3rd party developers often work around this by creating app-specific locking mechanisms. This is insecure and inelegant for a number of reasons, not to mention a huge duplication of effort for something that could be handled by iOS.
While app/folder-specific locks would technically solve the above problems, I think such a feature risks complicating things. Having to worry about changing lock/unlock states for apps and folders entails extra cognitive load. What happens if you lock a folder and move an app into or out of it - does it keep the lock? Will there be an indication of when an unlock will time out?
Worst of all, it burdens the primary user of the device with having to enter passcodes on a regular basis - even during periods of time when their child isn’t using the iPad. It’s bad enough having to enter a passcode when waking up one’s iPad - prompting for additional passcodes during regular usage sounds like a recipe for aggravation.
The Underlying Problem
While it’s possible Apple could provide a way to streamline this, I think locks would ultimately just be a workaround for a larger, more fundamental problem with the platform.
The iPad is a single-user device, but is quite commonly shared with multiple people.
Even if it were expertly implemented by Apple, the proposed solution breaks down when you realize that iPads may be shared with more than just one person. Apps that you’d allow one child to access might not be appropriate for a child of a different age group. And what about your spouse and the apps they might want to use?
There are different classes of users, each with different needs and ideal privileges. A one-size-fits-all locking mechanism not only complicates the user experience for all users, it also fails to address the fact that as much as Apple has positioned the iPad as a “personal” device, everyone seems to want to get their hands on it.
Why Multi-User is Better
I believe that full-fledged multi-user support would solve the problems that Oliver’s proposed solution seeks to address, but in a more elegant manner.
Upon turning on the device, users simply tap an icon representing them. It could be a photo or chosen image of some sort. Optionally, some users might have set a passcode to enter.
Some users would have access to all apps on the device. Optionally, a parent could configure a child’s account to (for example) only display apps specifically allowed for that child. A fair degree of specificity could be allowed, but I imagine that a simple “hide all apps for this user, except for the following” setting would work in most cases. Different children would see different apps, based upon the parent’s wishes.
In addition to solving the problem in a more fine-grained way that doesn’t require things like timeouts, this would also address the problem in a way that provides significant additional value for any family that owns an iPad.
Multiple users would mean multiple app states for each user. Whether it’s a child’s high score in Angry Birds or a spouse’s personal email account and bookmarks, it is understandable that settings might differ from person to person. Ironically, Apple’s desire to make using an iPad a “more personal” experience has made it less so for many users (I’ve even heard of people using different email clients and web browsers as a means to keep settings apart!).
Supporting multiple users in a more elegant way would make the iPad a far more personal device for many people.
Why Apple Hasn’t Done It
It’s quite possible that Apple simply wants to sell more iPads. One per family member, if possible.
While that might be the case, Apple also knows that selling iPads is highly dependent on providing a great user experience. Even with multi-user support, there are still plenty of reasons why one might want their own device. I hope this cynical answer isn’t also the correct one.
It’s also possible that Apple genuinely feels that this would complicate the user experience. While it would (optionally) add an extra tap upon turning the device on and a way to (optionally) choose who can access which apps, I think this is still much better than having one’s child delete random apps or deciding who gets the privilege of using Mail.
It could be that they’ve not yet decided upon a way to address this in a way that suits both the iPad and iPhone. Multi-user is most useful and appropriate, I think, to the iPad.
Finally - and most likely, I suspect - they simply haven’t gotten around to it, and this would be a significant enough feature to warrant careful consideration and a high quality implementation. They’re not at a competitive disadvantage as of yet, as no other viable mobile OS provides multi-user. That may change soon with Windows 8, assuming it gains any traction.
Oliver identified a very real problem with the iOS ecosystem, and one that I hope Apple will address in a meaningful way. I do hope, however, that they do so in a way that doesn’t add complexity while ignoring the root problem.