Multi-user tablets have an edge over the iPad at home but not at work or school

Over the past few weeks, a number of people have asked me whether there's a way to create and manage multiple user profiles or accounts on an iPad. The question, which I've heard from home users that want to share iPads among family members as well as from schools and businesses, hasn't come as a surprise. Over the holiday shopping season, Barnes & Noble spent a lot of advertising dollars promoting the profile support for multiple users in its Nook HD and Nook HD+ tablets.

Barnes & Noble may have had the most aggressive media push, but they aren't alone in extending tablets to support multiple users. In Android Jelly Bean 4.2, Google added the ability for Android tablets to support multiple users. Amazon introduced an add-on feature to its second generation Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD tablets this fall called FreeTime that lets parents create restricted user profiles for their kids. Even Microsoft got into the action by introducing the Kids Corner feature of Windows Phone 8, which it began promoting in ads with Jessica Alba. Microsoft also built multi-user support into Windows RT and any tablet or device running the ARM-based version of Windows 8, including the Surface RT, can have multiple local users.

Apple has yet to introduced similar functionality in iOS, giving the distinct impression that the company has fallen behind companies producing iPad competitors. While it's possible to approximate multiple profiles on iOS devices, the process of getting things up and running is a bit cumbersome and the mechanisms involved are complete overkill for a family or even for many small businesses. Apple's unspoken message appears to be that everyone should have their own iOS device.

That viewpoint makes sense when you're talking about the iPhone (or any other smartphone). A smartphone is the most personal piece if technology each of us uses and smartphones are almost universally designed with a single person in mind. Even solutions that separate business apps, content and settings from a user's personal apps and data - be that by mobile management tools or by virtualizing the smartphone OS - presume that a device will be used by a single user regardless of the business or personal context.

When you're talking about a tablet, that strict single-user assumption breaks down. Many families share one (or more) tablet(s) among some, if not all, family members. In education settings, multiple students may share a tablet during a single class or the same tablets may be used by different students in each class session. In business, teams may share a pool of tablets that each user can check one out as needed for meetings or presentations - a technique that can be used in a wide range of professions such as as sales, marketing, healthcare, teaching or training, law enforcement and field support. Even when tablets aren't explicitly shared, students or workers may need to let someone else use a tablet to add content, review work or browse information.

In these types of scenarios, tablets are used more like laptops than smartphones. That means the need for the same type of multi-user capabilities found on desktop platforms isn't an unrealistic expectation.

While non-Apple tablets are beginning to offer multi-user capabilities, however, they are doing so almost entirely in consumer contexts.

Amazon's FreeTime is more like an advanced parental control system that allows parents to give kids different access restrictions and content depending on age, demonstration of responsibility, education needs, or entertainment preferences. As a result, it doesn't offer a true multi-user environment in the way that a PC does, though it is rather similar.

The Nook HD and HD+ support multiple user profiles in a more PC-like manner. While parental controls and restrictions can be placed on younger users within a family, the Nook approach to user profiles is largely designed to let each user, adult or child, have their own personalized tablet experience and access to their own content like apps, ebooks, movies, email and documents.

The most recent incarnation of Android, Jelly Bean 4.2, delivers an even broader and more PC-like multi-user experience. Multiple tablet accounts can be created and each user will be asked to go through the standard Android tablet setup process that includes linking their account on the tablet to their Google account for services like GMail, Google Drive, and so on. Each user's profile includes things like home screen layout, widgets, apps and content. As with the Nook HD and HD+, users can be completely unrestricted or have parental controls imposed.

As part of the Windows family, Windows RT devices support multiple local user accounts. That means a separate profile that contains each user's settings, Start screen selection, documents, apps, and other data and content. The experience is largely the same as on any standalone PC running Windows 8 (or Windows 7, Vista or XP). Of course, this can mean unlimited accounts or accounts with user restrictions or parental controls enabled.

Windows Phone 8 doesn't deliver true multi-user support, but the Kids Corner feature works like Amazon's FreeTime and allows parents to create a kid-focused environment that includes parental controls and restrictions. The feature can be activated from the lock screen and it prevents a child (or another adult) from accessing the full set of apps, viewing personal or business content, or deleting data. Again, the feature doesn't deliver a lot of enterprise potential in and of itself, but it does offer the ability to share a phone with a family member, friend, or coworker in a limited fashion that keeps your data private.

All of this sounds great and impressive, and it is for couples, families or very small business settings. Amazon and Barnes & Noble only permit six user accounts/profiles to be created on any given device. Android tablets running Jelly Bean 4.2 and higher only permit eight accounts. That limits the scalability of multi-user support. Only Windows RT devices avoid these kinds of limits.

The bigger concern is that none of the multi-user features tie into enterprise systems like Active Directory or even Microsoft's Exchange. That means that they have limited business or education potential. By and large, they don't integrate with user-centric mobile management solutions and processes, though there are a couple of exceptions.

One exception is that Amazon allows organizations to centrally manage Kindle devices (and the Kindle app on non-Kindle devices like an iPad or a PC) through its Whispercast service, which is effectively a Kindle-specific mobile management solution. Several MDM (mobile device management) suites also support managing Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD tablets along with iOS devices and traditional Android phones and tablets, as well as enforce some passcode and security policies via Exchange ActiveSync. None of these management options, however, tie into Kindle FreeTime and generally treat managed Kindles as single-user devices.

The other exception is Windows RT. While Windows RT devices can support local user accounts, they cannot be joined to an Active Directory domain, which means you cannot login to a tablet like the Surface RT with Active Directory credentials. As a result IT administrators cannot use group policies to manage Windows RT device as they can other Windows PCs. This also means that if a user has a roaming profile - one that delivers the user's settings, apps, and documents regardless of which PC he or she is using - that profile is inaccessible from Windows RT devices. Exchange functionality is also not supported under Windows RT or the home and student version of Office that it includes. Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 devices will, however, be managed using other Microsoft solutions like Windows InTune, though such a solution isn't yet available.

All in all, this means that the iPad is largely on equal footing with other tablets in business or education settings because of their multi-user functionality is designed for home use and not for enterprise use or integration. With Apple Configurator, a free utility that delivers user-profile capabilities to a pool of shared iOS devices, the iPad actually inches closer to the multi-user enterprise ideal, though it still falls short of true on-device multi-user functionality.

It's also worth noting that several mobile management vendors offer a form of multi-user functionality in their products. In this case, when a user logs into a mobile management system using management agent or app on the device, specific settings are configured and apps and content may be made accessible or even installed onto the device over the air. The exact functionality varies between vendors and platforms and, although it is a powerful enterprise solution, it is one that is cost and resource prohibitive to families and some small organizations (not to mention it is really overkill for their needs).

Ultimately, the multi-user approach to mobile devices is still in its infancy for both consumer and enterprise use. There is a lot of evolution to come from Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and others. In fact, 2013 is likely to be a year in which these capabilities evolve significantly across the board - and I wouldn't be surprised to see iOS 7 introduce multi-user functionality for consumers, schools and businesses.  

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