Friday, 3 October 2014

Family Sharing, Apple Style

One of iOS 8’s core new features is Family Sharing. Since I like my family and I like sharing, I will dedicate a post to the feature.
Up until now, Apple allowed an Apple ID to be used across up to 5 computers and as many iOS devices as one wanted. Naturally, because I did not want each family member to have to repurchase any app that I had already paid for, we ended up with my account used on all the family’s iOS gadgets. Which can be a bit of a pain, especially in the iCloud department and given my very strict approach to matters of security.
Enter Family Sharing. Now, with iOS 8, each family member can use their own Apple ID while purchases are shared between family members. Also, future purchases all come off the central account (in my family’s case, mine), with the exception of members that decide to use iTunes cards on their own account (but why would they?). Things can also be set up so that certain family members require other members’ approval for purchases while other family members can be set up as official request approvers. Don't take my word for it, read Apple's features list here.
From Apple’s point of view, as a company whose core product is an overpriced ecosystem, Family Sharing makes perfect sense: make the life of its loyal users lovelier and you can rest assured thoughts of defecting to the much cheaper Android Land are quickly subdued. Essentially, we're talking about Apple taking care of its milking cow.
That’s very nice of Apple, I agree, but I would also point out that in order for this whole thing to work two things need to happen:
  1. iOS users should be able to set Family Sharing up, and
  2. The environment, apps and all, needs to support it.
Sadly, I am here to report that neither is taking place. Instead of Apple delivering the slick product one normally associates with the Apple brand, Family Sharing is proving to be half baked, defective and - worse - broken by design. In other words, Family Sharing is joining other recent Apple failures in giving away the impression that things aren’t going all that well up there in Cupertino.
Allow me to regale you with the details.

Once iOS 8 was out, I made sure to upgrade the family’s arsenal of relevant gadgets – iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs – as quickly as possible. Or rather, as quickly as Apple would let me; it took ages for the upgrade, now fed exclusively through Apple’s own servers, to trickle down our separate gadgets. For the record, I do consider the upgrade important and dare I say mandatory for security reasons alone: Apple did some great stuff in iOS 8 to help users, and only the users, own their iGadget.
Once we were all upgraded I went ahead and set Family Sharing up. It was a fairly quick affair; if you want a nice guide for setting it up, check this one out.
Problems started when the time came to install apps I already purchased on the family members’ gadgets. They wouldn't let us do so without paying, again. I also noted that on certain family members gadgets apps purchased by me would update, while on other family members’ gadgets an error message would appear, informing them the app was purchased under a different account and blocking the update. So much for family sharing, then.
I checked the interweb but found no accounts of people facing similar problems, so I dared and contacted Apple’s support through their website. I will give Apple much praise there: their support efforts proved incredible! I clicked on their site’s “call me” button and provided my phone number; I was informed someone would call me in 2 minutes; and, to my astonishment, an Apple representative did call me after 2 minutes! I didn’t even have to spend money on a phone call.
First thing first, the Singapore based Apple support woman I was talking to explained that in order to access previously purchased apps for downloading I shouldn’t be searching for them using the normal app search facilities. Instead, I should look for them under the “Purchased” tab of the Appstore app. Dumb and rather unintuitive, and by now I can also say wrong, but I’ll live with that.
Alas, a family member’s iPhone still wouldn’t budge. It still demanded payment for apps I previously purchased; not only that, it would show conflicting information with regards to who is logged in depending on whether you asked the Appstore app or the iTunes app. The Apple support people told me, as we were trying things out, that when I logged in under the family member’s account it actually showed them that I was logging in as myself; I had to send them screen shots for them to believe me. That’s one nice iOS 8 bug right there, and apparently I was the first to call Apple on this one!
Things got complicated and I was escalated three technical levels up during the call. That initial call ended up lasting for more than an hour, after which the woman assigned to help me kept contact with me for several days over email and phone until my problem was finally solved. Turns out that after establishing Family Sharing, that problematic family member of mine still had to verify their account again, without being prompted, and initiate the process by very non intuitively clicking on their email address on a secondary Family Sharing setup screen. In my book, that’s a bug, too.
I will stress my praise for the Apple Support team’s efforts. I severely doubt any other operating system provider would have gone as far as Apple did (Microsoft, for example, didn't prove half as helpful when I contacted them in the past). Clearly, Apple makes an effort to hold on to core users of its ecosystem, providing us with another reason to keep inside.

But then came IMDB to spoil the party. You see, contrary to initial reports, Family Sharing is flawed by design. It is flawed because a day after iOS 8 was released, Apple announced developers would be able to determine whether Family Sharing is enabled on their apps. Not only that, developers would be able to specify cut off dates for Family Sharing.
Now, let me ask you this: what good is Family Sharing if it has exceptions? Does Apple really think people would repurchase apps? No sane person would do that; instead, people would just login under their previous account, the way we all did prior to iOS 8. What we have here is a pretty dumb way to ensure that over time, Family Sharing is useless and meaningless. Apple really made an effort at stupid with this one!
Which is exactly what the Amazon owned IMDB app chose to do. Granted, IMDB is a free app, but – probably due to reasons involving being better abled at tracking users down – it had decided to not support Family Sharing. The result? The IMDB app would not update on family members’ iGadgets, only on mine.
Given that IMDB is a free app, I went ahead and deleted the app from one offended gadget under the assumption I’d be able to repurchase the app through the gadget’s corresponding account. After all, IMDB is a free app, so even though I think it’s stupid to ask me to repurchase it I’ll survive doing so. But no! The Appstore app will not let me repurchase the app; because Family Sharing is set up, it still displays the “cloud” download symbol when I select the IMDB app, signifying the app has already been purchased. It gets worse: When I click on the cloud symbol, I received an error message telling me the app was purchased under a different account.
Things aren't much better on another family member's iPad: I did not delete IMDB there, but - as a reward for my loyalty - no other app can be updated. There's no error message or anything, they just won't update. [4/10/2014 update: it seems my inability to update all other apps was related to an Apple Appstore outage rather than Family Sharing; I am now able to update the rest of the apps, but not IMDB.]
Do you get what’s happening here? Apple’s Family Sharing has left one family member unable to use an app, and another family member unable to keep their apps up to date!
I contacted Apple for help with this one two nights ago. I am still waiting on their reply.

Long story aside, it is clear iOS 8’s Family Sharing is bugs galore. When one of the main reasons for forking out the extra cash for an iOS gadget is that it "always works", Apple is clearly doing itself a disservice here.
Great support efforts or not, Family Sharing is a poorly designed and conceived product.

Image copyrights: Apple, used under the assumption of fair use

21/10/2014 update:
I was hoping Apple would address the bugs I have identified in Family Sharing in its iOS 8.1 release, issued today (Australia time). It didn't.
I am still encountering the same problems, albeit with a slightly different error message. Check the following iOS 8.1 error message out:

As you can see, when I use a family member's iPhone to click on the "Free" button to purchase the app (Dropbox) which I had previously bought on my own account, the Appstore app does not let me buy the app; instead it gives me this lovely error message.
I canvassed the matter with Apple's Support again, this time via online chat. They promised to get back to me, admitting that something stinks here, but in the meantime we have found a workaround: logging out of the Apple account and in again, inside the Appstore app, temporarily retrieves the ability to purchase previously purchased apps. But only temporarily; I had to repeat the act several times to get through the whole backlog of applications that would not support Family Sharing (but offered updated versions to the previously installed ones).

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