The problem with iOS 8, Family Sharing, free apps, and how to fix it

Like many couples, if you’ve been sharing a single Apple ID in order to share iTunes Store purchases (which Apple has long recommended), you may have run into a problem with iOS 8 and Family Sharing where you can’t download or update some apps. I’ve been troubleshooting this with my wife since iOS 8 landed, and I think I know what’s going on. Yes, I’ve reported the bug to Apple. I’m not hip to OpenRadar, but the Apple bug ID is 19320726. Does it need to be somewhere else for dupe-ification?

The Full Purpose of Family Sharing

Remember that Family Sharing isn’t just about iTunes purchases. While it has many perks like automatically creating a shared family calendar and Photo Stream, Family Sharing also brings some much needed privacy back to being a family in the digital age. As one example, I’ve met a surprising number of couples who never created an otherwise unused ID 3 for sharing purchases. They just shared one member’s Apple ID and password among the group.

Think about that—one member just gave the others access to their personal email and iMessages. Maybe they didn’t know any better, maybe creating an ID 3 was too much work. I’d argue they shouldn’t have needed to know any better. The core problem is that most companies never took a stab at an actual solution until Apple and Family Sharing.

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The Problem

Here’s how the problem started for us, and I wager it affects most other couples who switched to Family Sharing:

  • Since the iTunes Store had ‘Music’ in its name, Jessi and I went the popular route of sharing a single account between us for all purchases. I have Apple ID 1, she has ID 2, and our store account was ID 3. All purchases, including free apps, were made with ID 3.
  • iOS 8 landed and we opted into Family Sharing, all three IDs are on board. Jessi can now sign into the store with her ID 2 and enable things like auto-downloads for the apps and books she cares about, but keep her devices clean of all the stuff I download out of curiosity or for work.
  • However, a not insignificant number of apps (especially free apps) downloaded with that shared ID 3 have not opted into Family Sharing. Twitter and Pinterest are two good examples (check their details in the App Store; it’s “Family Sharing – Not Available).
  • Since these apps were originally downloaded with ID 3, Jessi’s devices now logged into the store with ID 2 cannot update any non-FS apps originally downloaded with ID 3. An error tells her that since they were downloaded with a different ID, they can only be updated by signing into that ID.
  • This also counts for apps she never downloaded. For example, I downloaded Twitter’s official app with ID 3 a long time ago, but Jessi couldn’t download it unless she swapped back to ID 3. Now that she signed back in with ID 2, she can’t update it either.
  • Update: After some more testing, this ID error appears even with some apps that are FS-enabled; perhaps they were not opted into Family Sharing when we set it up, then opted in later. Jessi had nearly a dozen FS-enabled apps that refused to update until we signed in with ID 3, including Dropbox, Google Drive, and Evernote.

Users are ultimately forced to juggle App Store IDs, use the same password for everyone’s account, or come up with an equally terrible workaround. The first option is pretty inconvenient, the second is terribly insecure.

The Solution in Two Parts

I can understand why developers of paid apps might not want to opt into Family Sharing. While my professional opinion is that you’re kidding yourself if you believe a significant number of household members will buy an app twice instead of just share their store logins, it’s your business and your show. However, I can’t see the case for avoiding Family Sharing for free apps. If there is one, I’d love to hear it.

Either way, this Family Sharing wonkiness is probably making most consumers just do the easy thing—continue (or switch back to) sharing a single account for all purchases, which means privacy weirdness for one or more members and encouraging weak passwords. It’s bad for everyone.

Since Apple takes forever to fix stuff like this, I see two solutions:

  1. In the short term I encourage developers of free apps to opt into Family Sharing to smooth this over.
  2. Long term, Apple probably needs to tweak how Family Sharing works. Maybe all free apps are automatically FS-enabled and get no choice otherwise, and paid apps are opt-in even if they go on sale for free. In-app purchases are more complicated, but at least this is a start.

I’ve been complaining about this on Twitter for a while now, so I hope this explains the problem in more detail and maybe even gets a ball rolling somewhere at Apple.