Multiple user accounts have been offered by various platforms for a long time. My first exposure to the idea of distinct user profiles was on my family’s Packard Bell computer running Windows 95. With five of us sharing the machine, multiple-account support was a blessing. There was no security to speak of -we all had administrator access, though none of us knew what that meant- but it gave us the illusion of privacy. At the very least, we could select our own wallpaper and arrange our desktop icons the way we wanted.
The underlying nature of separate-account support has changed since then; computer owners can select varying levels of security for each user account, including granting or denying administrator privileges. The fundamental advantage to the ordinary consumer has remained the same -each user can customize his or her own user environment- but the usefulness has broadened so that users can reasonably expect their files and data to be safe from prying eyes or tampering. I still make frequent use of multiple-login capability, particularly when shooting how-to videos that require the use of a Windows machine. Since I no longer own one of my own, my roommate very graciously set up a user account for me on his HP notebook. Every time I return to it, no matter how long it’s been since my last login, all of my folders and materials remain in the same disjointed mess they were in the last time I saw them.
So with all these advantages, why haven’t we seen multiple-account support make the leap from PC to consumer tablet yet? We’re in the midst of the second year of widespread Android tablet availability, with some manufacturers already in their third or fourth generations of devices. Apple has given us two full-point platform upgrades over three iPad models. These upgrades have brought us truckloads of new features, many of which meet or exceed the capabilities of their desktop-confined brethren … but if a user wants multiple logins, he’s forced to buy a tablet running a full version of Windows. Why?
The simple answer is that tablet makers haven’t decided to implement the feature yet, probably due to a lack of perceived demand. But as tablets continue to flood into households across the globe, slowly but inexorably prying us from our dependence on desktop machines, that demand is growing steadily. In a forum post on this topic over at The Verge, commenter “andros69″ makes a family-centric case for adding the feature:
This describes my quandary with buying a tablet for the family almost to a T … We can’t realistically afford 3-4 tablets for the household. My kids are young but the oldest is starting to get into mobile games, always borrowing my phone or my wife’s. Would love to let him have a profile on a tablet that I can control with parental settings. Same with my wife’s accounts and apps.
This isn’t a new problem, either. In an XDA Forums thread from 2010, user “abufrejoval” muses about these issues as he waits for his tablet to arrive in the mail:
I keep wondering: How will I manage it? A tablet really seems more of a family device. I’ll pass it around, it may spend most of its time in the living room, like a magazine or a book, ready to be picked up by everyone: Kids, in-laws, visitors.
Chances are, I’ll leave it at home to be torn apart by kids and wife, when I drive to work … I might take it along for a business trip, just like a book or a DVD, but when I leave the hotel room for lunch, it will be left behind … There are issues of personalization, privacy and data/application synchronisation … While I would want to show off my cool new gadget to just about everyone, I wouldn’t want them to browse my e-mails or flip through my browser bookmarks.
We’re definitely going to see user profiles supported in Windows 8 tablets like the Surface Pro, which will be nice; it’ll be a welcome change to see Microsoft leading the way on a new feature whose demand is just beginning to materialize. But it’s going to take Redmond a long time to make up the marketshare gap between it and its competitors. Even when it cements itself as a viable player, though, Windows won’t be everyone’s first choice … so Apple and Google will need to develop their own integrated solutions to provide multiple-user support. But iOS 6 was just announced without any mention of the feature, and I’m not holding my breath for its inclusion in Android 5/Jelly Bean.
Fortunately, there are some stopgap solutions available.
iUsers is a Cydia app available for jailbroken iPads. It provides exactly the functionality we’re talking about; user accounts can be created with custom logins and passwords, with or without administrator privileges. Everything from browser history to wallpaper to springboard configuration follows individual users as they log in. Switching users is accomplished by pressing a small button that appears beside the slide-to-unlock bar at the lower-left corner of the lock screen. Judging by the demo video at the source link (included at the bottom of this article), it seems to work quite intuitively.
Over in the world of the green robot, the underground development community has been just as busy: an app called SwitchMe allows for the same kind of multiple profile creation and management. There’s a caveat with SwitchMe, in that it partitions the device storage as part of its account-creation process. This results in less usable space, which could be a problem on devices with small storage, or those which are heavily loaded with media. If you’re not bogged down by issues like those, though, SwitchMe is currently riding some excellent reviews in the Google Play store.
These aren’t the only options; there are are other apps for each platform advertising the same features. As always, anyone serious about adding this feature to his or her tablet should thoroughly research all available choices.
The challenge with many of those apps, including the two mentioned above, is that they require privilege escalation: iUsers can only be installed on a jailbroken iPad, and SwitchMe requires root access (with the developer recommending a full Nandroid backup before installation). While those steps might seem trivial for a tech-savvy Pocketnow reader, to the average tablet user they’re anything but. The only way for this capability to take hold at any meaningful scale is for Apple and Google to build it in at the stock level.
Until that happens, I’ll be muddling through with iUsers on my iPad and SwitchMe on my TouchPad, waiting for the release of the new Surface tablets. Or, you know, just refusing to share my tablet devices with anyone else. That’s probably the easiest way, come to think of it.
Do you have recommendations for user-account apps or features not discussed here? Want to gripe about the lack of stock options for this sort of thing? Or are you fundamentally against the idea of separate user accounts? Drop your comments in the Disqus thread below; we’ll talk privacy vs. openness, family values vs. social independence , and Star Trek vs. Star Wars. It’ll be great.
iUsers info source: OSXDaily