Multi-user support coming soon to Android

August 3, 2012
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Multi-user support on Android smartphones and tablets is said to already exist within Jelly Bean, although there is no working user-switching implementation yet. Still, analysis of the underlying code suggests that Google developers may be working on enabling multi-user support in the near future.

Smartphones and tablets are primarily personal devices. You don’t usually share your phone or tablet with family members, colleagues or friends. However, multi-user setups do have their use. For instance, enterprise users may want to keep separate accounts for work and home use. Then there’s also the concept of shared devices, such as “coffee table tablets,” as Android Police puts it. Multi-user support will help improve privacy and keep user settings and profiles intact when a device is shared.

A peek into the codebase of the Android Open Source Project indicates a few code additions that are meant to support multi-user. These include calls and methods like onUserChanged and setCurrentUser, which suggest functions related to user switching.

These code additions are added as “commits” by members of the community, including developers from Google. Here’s a rough timeline of these commits based on comments by Googlers:

  • April 14, 2011 – “Plumbing in PackageManager and installd for multi-user support”
  • May 4, 2011 – “Multi-user – 1st major checkin”
  • March 13, 2012 – “Package restrictions per user”
  • March 22, 2012 – “User management and switching”
  • March 28, 2012 – “Lockscreen settings per user”

The comments suggest that a multi-user setup will involve different settings and preferences, such as the lockscreen and unlock pattern (or PIN or passcode). Filesystem changes also suggest that users can install their own applications, and that Android will support clean install and uninstall of apps and packages for each user. Users also get their own record of running apps, default apps, app data, home screen widgets, Google account details, syncing options and language.

Likewise, the UI will also support multi-users, such as changing the history contents of the back button. Behind the scenes, Android will also run services separately, according to user. And when a user account is deleted, Android will remove apps associated with that user, and their user settings will be wiped out too.

These commits were entered into the AOSP codebase before Jelly Bean, and some before Ice Cream Sandwich. On Jelly Bean, the directory structure suggests that the system may actually be able to implement multi-user setups already. The presence of the directory /data/system/users/0 suggests that additional users can co-exist with user number zero.

Do you think multi-user support on Android would be a popular feature among tablet users? Or will this be a niche feature that will find use mostly in the enterprise setting?

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