Apple may allow multiple accounts on the iPad, completing the tablet's transformation to personal computer

  • A recent patent by Apple that was granted last week covers "Embodiments described herein provide for a system, method, and apparatus to provision domains in a secure enclave processor to support multiple users."
  • iPads currently only allow one user login, but this new patent could mean multi-user support isn't too far off.
  • Tech columnist Jason Aten says this could be a huge improvement for users, businesses and families alike, who want to keep their personal data separate on a shared device.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The iPad is one of the most useful devices I own. 

I use a 2018 11-inch iPad Pro every single day. Despite being a few years old, it's my favorite device to work on. When used with the Magic Keyboard, it's a great tool for writing, research, and just about everything I do on a day-to-day basis. 

Never mind that millions of people use one of the various iPads available to do everything from work to binge-watch Netflix to attend online school. As a device, it's one of the most versatile and useful computers you can get. It also happens to be, for the money, one of the most capable.

There are a few things that could be better, though I'd argue it really only has one major problem: An iPad is only for one person. I know you can technically share it with other people, but the problem is that when you do, you have almost no control over what you're sharing with anyone who picks up the device.

The Mac, on the other hand, has long allowed you to create user accounts that have their own login, where each user only has access to their own collection of applications and files. You can even set different permissions or restrictions for different accounts.

The iPad, however, only allows you to set one passcode. You can obviously share that code with anyone you want to let use your device, but with it, you're handing over access to everything stored on it and connected via services like iCloud.

A recent patent by Apple, however, might just give hope to anyone who has long wished they could hand off their iPad to their child without fear they might accidentally start responding to incoming Slack messages while playing Minecraft. 

Patent 10,872,152, which was granted last week, covers "Embodiments described herein provide for a system, method, and apparatus to provision domains in a secure enclave processor to support multiple users." Specifically, the first part of the patent describes a "processor to receive a set of credentials associated with one of multiple user accounts on the apparatus."

Technically, this is already possible for education users, and more recently for enterprise accounts. That, however, involves having an Apple Business Manager instance and a mobile device management (MDM) server. If you've never heard of either of those, it's because — like most people — you're not a corporate IT manager. For the rest of us, well, we've been out of luck.

While a patent filing is no guarantee of a future product or feature, multi-user support would be a game-changer for the iPad. And I don't mean that in the way we use that word too often to describe things that are not at all game-changers but merely interesting moments in what's otherwise the same game. 

The Apple Pencil, for example, wasn't a game-changer. It didn't really make it possible to do something you couldn't do before. It made drawing or writing on an iPad better , but you could do that already. 

The same is true with Face ID. You can debate whether or not Face ID is better than Touch ID, especially when unlocking a device with your face is mostly impossible when we're all wearing masks. Still, on the iPad Face ID was definitely more convenient and even quicker. But it still did the same thing (unlocking your device) but better.

Multi-user support would make the iPad significantly different. It would also allow you to do something that, as of now, simply isn't possible — that is, the sharing of a personal iPad with different apps, data, or content controls for different people. 

Even in the current incarnation used by enterprise and education customers, the data for a given user isn't stored locally. On an education iPad, for example, whoever manages the device can set it up with a specific group of apps, and when a student logs on to the device, it logs them into the appropriate services. It doesn't, however, store their personal files locally.

The patent Apple was recently granted would make it possible to have multiple users, each with access to their own data on the device. As described, Apple's method would use the secure enclave to authorize access and decrypt the users data when they enter their passcode.

There are two obvious ways this would change the iPad. 

First, for anyone who uses their iPad at home and has children, this would absolutely be a welcome feature. Multi-user support would likely allow you to create a login on your iPad that lets them play games or watch Disney+ but not access your email or Slack messages. 

That may not seem like a big deal, but one of the biggest frustrations is that when children — at least mine — are playing a game, they tend to tap on anything that moves. Sure, I can turn notifications off, but it's a pain to do that every time I want to let my son play a game, especially since I almost always forget to turn notifications back on.

The second obvious way this would be a game-changer is similar to the first, but for small businesses that aren't — for various reasons — ever going to use an enterprise managed system for their devices. If you're a boutique bakery or an auto-repair shop or a photography studio, that's probably not realistic.

Multi-user support built in would allow a small business to use an iPad the way it might use a Mac or a PC, by creating individual logins where each user could access his or her own email, messages, and files while keeping them separate from any other user.

There's another way this could change the way you use an iPad, though it's less obvious. 

Presumably, in order to make multi-user support work, there would have to be a change in the way apps interact with data.

Apps on iOS and iPadOS run in a sandbox, which is a security protection so that they can't access or corrupt any other information on your device. As a result, apps are restricted in the way they can share or access data on your device. Many apps store their data within the app, which also makes it easy to remove an app and associated data without having to go through directories and folders to make sure you've removed everything. 

In order for multi-user support to function in a way that's useful, that framework would need to change, at least for some types of apps. Otherwise you'd need to install multiple copies of an app, one for each user, since the data for each would be contained within the app. 

The patent doesn't directly address how app developers might need to change their apps in order to facilitate multi-user support, but presumably it would work more like it does on macOS, which allows you to install a single copy of an app to a computer and make it available to all users. The data created by those apps is then stored within the individual users account, which is encrypted and inaccessible by the other accounts on that device.

The same could be true on the iPad, where an app creates a database or library for each user, which can only be accessed with that users' login information. That's important because there's a lot more on an iPad or iPhone than just apps. Your iPad is linked to your iCloud account, which gives you access to your photos, email, and location information via the Find My app. 

It can also be configured to use Apple Pay, which is certainly not something you would want someone else to be able to access. Sorting out how to keep all of that information secure on a device shared between multiple people with individual logins appears to be exactly the type of problem this patent addresses. 

"Before a user can obtain access to data stored on the computing device, the user may be required successfully authenticate via the login screen," the patent says. 

There are some that believe that Apple hasn't added multi-user support to iPads, at least not for consumers, because it wants everyone to buy their own device. 

I'm not sure whether that's true or not, but I think the iPad is different than an iPhone, which is certainly the most personal device. 

An iPad is something that might be used primarily by one person, but far more likely to be shared — more like a Mac. With multi-user support, that would make the iPad that much more, well, useful.

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