Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Laying out the problems with Apple's Family Sharing

I think I've written before about Family Sharing, Apple's solution for families that want to be able to share the stuff they buy in Apple's iTunes Store.

The idea is that family members shouldn't have to buy a song, movie, etc., if someone else in the household has already bought it. In the past, most families accomplished this by sharing one iTunes Store account -- everyone in a family could access the same stuff, because everyone was buying stuff under the same name.

That was what my family used to do, and it did make sharing purchases dead simple. There are only four of us, only one of us uses more than one iThing (raising my hand, sheepishly) and we all pretty much want to watch and listen to the same stuff. The most awkward the arrangement usually ever became for us was when one or both of the kids were given iTunes Store gift cards. We'd load them onto our shared iTunes Store account, then we'd have to keep our own checkboook-style register so we knew who had how much left to spend.

Family Sharing arrived with iOS 8, probably because iOS 8 makes a stronger assumption that devices sharing the same account belong to the same person. Until we signed up for Family Sharing, I had a hard time convincing iOS that all of our devices didn't belong to my wife, for example.

But Family Sharing isn't without its shortcomings, and David Sparks described them eloquently in a New Year's Day blog post. He runs through several points in fine detail, but here are the ones I've run into in our family:

In-app purchases aren't included. If one of us buys a $1.99 app from the App Store, anyone in our family can navigate through to that person's purchases and download it for free. But if the developer sets up that game as a free download from the App Store with the meat of it available as a $1.99 in-app purchase, each of us has to buy it separately. iTunes Match isn't included. iTunes Match isn't without its own problems, but the idea behind it is that all of your music -- whether purchased from the iTunes Store or copied from your personal CD collection -- is available on your iPhone, iPad or iPod. In our case, it's generally worked reasonbly well, and at $25 a year it's not outrageously expensive (especially if you used to pay for .Me services that are now free under iCloud). But there's a big difference between paying $2 a month for an iTunes Match account shared by your family and paying four times that to cover four accounts. App updates often don't work. This was the earliest problem we ran into with Family Sharing, and we still run into it occasionally. Now that each of us is using our own accounts on our iPhones and iPods (and my iPad), we're occasionally prompted to update an app only to then be told the app can't be updated because it was purchased on a different account. Often, updating that app means deleting it from your device -- meaning it's likely you'll lose your data -- and installing it again for free via Family Sharing. Often, I end up deleting the app and just leaving it at that.

Anyway, David Sparks lays out his problems as reasons he's quitting Family Sharing. We haven't come to that point yet, but I admit that's likely because my kids don't complain loudly about things that would make me complain loudly. Apple's track record on debugging their cloud services hasn't been great; let's hope they figure Family Sharing out sooner than later.

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