It’s past time for the iPad to support multiple accounts

A complaint nine years in the making.

iPad Air 2019
Daniel Masaoka / IDG

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It’s 2019 and yet iPads remain married to the person who set them up. Apple may chatter a lot about privacy, but the fact that Apple insists on keeping its tablets tied to a single Apple ID means there’s little that’s private about sharing an iPad.

This arrangement has never made much sense, but it’s especially bizarre in light of the avalanche of quality-of-life changes Apple unleashed at this year’s WWDC. Almost every long-standing grievance got attention. With iPadOS 13, we can finally take Apple’s tablet somewhat seriously as a laptop alternative. We can use mice on iPads now. Safari finally looks much like it does on a Mac. Apple was so keen to improve its software that it even introduced support for multiple users on the Apple TV of all things, and I’m not even sure how many people were asking for that.

But I know plenty of people—mainly parents—have wanted iPads to support multiple accounts for ages. This very editorial is part of a long Macworld tradition that stretches back at least to 2013, and as recently as last November, columnist Dan Moren was telling everyone that Apple needed to roll out multi-user support for the Apple TV, HomePod, and iPad. Apple granted the first two wishes but not the latter. It’s an especially oddball policy when you consider that so much about Apple’s marketing suggests the company wants its tablet to be embraced by families, workplaces, and schools.

Schools, in fact, may point the way forward. Apple already lets school districts set up multiple accounts for students on its tablets with a service called Shared iPad, and so far it hasn’t caused some privacy crisis or burdened the tablets with lackluster performance. Since Apple syncs students’ information through iCloud, students can work off of any iPad from the pile. Teachers act as administrators for the iPads, so they can see their students’ performance and even see how they’re using their iPads. It’s basically what we want.

multiple accounts on ipad Apple

This, but for everyone.

Parents in families with shared iPads would love a feature so aptly named as Shared iPad, but instead, they find themselves struggling to keep their private apps, messages, and emails away from the kids. As former Macworld editor Susie Ochs pointed out last year, Screen Time isn’t an ideal solution as it forces parents to live under the same limitations as their children (or at least forces them to deal with frequent annoyances while disabling them). None of this would be a problem with multiple accounts on the same advice, and with multiple accounts on Screen Time, parents could get a more accurate picture of how children are using their iPads.

I’d love to see multi-user support on the iPad even in an office context. When a coworker wants to run benchmarks or handle an iPad I’ve been using for specific apps, I have to wipe the entire device clean so they don’t have to deal with seeing my stuff. I shouldn’t have to act like such a big machine is just as private as my phone. The only real option Apple allows for privacy while sharing iPads is a little-known Accessibility feature called Guided Access, but it simply keeps the person you hand the iPhone or iPad to from looking at anything besides that specific app.

We’re not asking for some sci-fi feature. Macs have worked this way for years, so I can easily pass a MacBook to a colleague because I know they’ll be fine using the guest account. Windows PCs work this way. Other tablets and even some Android phones work this way.

Administrative leave

Much as it did with so much else about iPadOS 13, Apple should take a cue from the Mac and allow one account to serve as an administrator. That would allow the person to access all the privileges and settings, and so use the iPad as they would now. That person could control which other accounts have access to the data plans in cellular models, and they could better control which apps their children have access to through Screen Time. That person could decide which accounts can buy or download apps from the App Store (which will help with concerns about running out of storage space), and choose which apps to share with Family Sharing.

login screen macbook pro catalina Leif Johnson/IDG

Simplicity itself.

As with the Apple TV, such a setup would allow family members to watch shows and listen to music without worrying that their recommendations will get muddled with someone else’s preferences. All of their separate accounts could open and be protected with Face ID or Touch ID. The only stumbling block I see is that each person would probably have to enter their Apple ID password each time they take it over from another user, but after that, the iPad should work as we normally use it.

I see two practical reasons why Apple might not want to extend multiple-user support to ordinary iPads: file management and storage limits. Both could cause complications once multiple users start downloading multiple apps on the same device, especially on smaller iPads—some of which have only 32GB of room. I struggle with storage limits that small with a single account. Apple’s experiment with schools shows that file management needn’t be as complicated as it seems, though, particularly if Apple allowed an administrator’s account to place limits on downloaded files. And if Apple is really worried about space, then it could limit multi-user support to the iPad Pro. It even makes sense—with iPadOS 13, the Pro no longer has many big software differences to distinguish it from its more affordable cousins. After that, we’re left with a suspicion that Apple only hasn’t introduced multi-user support for the iPad is that it wants multiple users of the same household or office to buy their own iPads.

I hope this will be the last editorial like this in our pages. I hate the idea of waiting, but I’m also hoping Apple is saving the feature in order to snazz up the reveal for iPadOS 14, which almost certainly won’t be as flashy as what we saw in June. Right now, Apple’s prohibition of multi-user support keeps the iPad from being quite the kind of household staple Apple wants it to be. It clashes with Apple’s commitment to privacy. And it’s time for it to go away.

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