The Multi-user Tablet

It wasn’t long ago when all personal computing was done on laptops and desktops. This changed with the arrival of power-efficient CPUs, flash storage, and touch screens. Today, most of us carry a computer in our pocket at all times – our smartphone. In-between those two categories – a full blown computer and a smartphone – is the tablet.

One big difference between PC and smartphones is the ability to have multiple users on a PC as opposed to a phone. Multiuser OS is important not only for sharing one device, but also because much of our computing is on-line (in the cloud), and we use larger devices as mere portals to our online content and contacts. Thus, even if a household owns several computers, they can all be shared by all members of the household based on their needs.

With the exception of the upcoming Windows tablets, the other two major platforms – Android and iOS – do not currently provide multiuser capabilities. This is arguably a result of those two being essentially evolved phone OSes. As they mature and move into the tablet space though, it is essential that those two platforms also provide multiuser support.

There have been plenty of rumors that multiuser support is already being built in Android. Based on Linux, Android can naturally have more than one user, and the Google framework allows for setting up more than one Google account on the same device. The accounts are not equivalent though, and they are not sufficiently separated to allow for security and privacy while sharing one device between more users.

There are several things to consider:

  • Sharing of apps – sharing a physical device allows users to give access to their own apps to family and friends. The important issue here is app settings – currently, they are stored together with the app on Android, which isn't ideal if considering more than one user for the app
  • Sharing of content – locally stored content can be shared and cloud stored content can be made accessible according to the currently logged-in user
  • Notifications for non-logged users – depending on sensitivity and privacy, those could be shown, suspended, or require a login to be fully displayed

Overall, it seems that a multiuser tablet OS based on Android is possible. Once in place, it can be extended by offering a more seamless integration with other devices (for example login or control by using NFC in your phone). I am really excited about the upcoming Google announcement on Oct 29, and I hope that a new version of Android may provide a solution for multiuser tablets. I am also curious about the solutions that the Nook HD+, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, and the MS Surface provide, and how they all compare with each other in terms of flexibility, privacy, and performance.