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.
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