Dear developers: where possible and prudent, please stop throwing out our credentials

Earlier this week, my brother and I spent nearly 45 minutes on the phone with our mother, trying to troubleshoot an iPad app that forgot her password. She isn’t great with tech, but iOS was built with non-PhDs in mind, right?

Acorn TV updated recently (yes, auto-updates are on) and asked my mom for her username and password. She typed those in so long ago, and she is so unfamiliar with this stuff, that she didn’t even understand which app or service or do-hickey was asking for her password. Originally she thought it was her iPad password, which was our first brick wall. We tried talking her through the dialog(s). Yes, sometimes you have to tap the “one-two-three button” in the lower left to find the @-symbol. No, wait, what do you see now? Ok, the @ symbol might be on the other side of the keyboard, next to the space bar. Oh, why does it move around? Well that’s hard to explain…. Wait, back up. Let’s start over one more, one more, one more time.

All she really grokked was that this app she occasionally used suddenly decided to stop working and start asking her for details she didn’t care about and couldn’t remember. Worse, halfway through the call, she explained that she wanted to get this app working not for herself, but for a friend in her senior community who just injured her back and will be bedridden for another week. Yay, technology!

Look, I get that usernames and passwords are important; I worked with the 1Password folks for four years and I still think it’s one of the greatest apps ever made. But should a TV app really dump its saved password because of an update? I’m not a developer, I don’t know what’s going on in the background. Maybe a cache got transmogrified or the underlying architecture experienced a flux capacitor event. Fine.

But I also don’t care and, I’d argue, shouldn’t need to care. All I know is that my mom, 1,300 miles away, now cannot watch one of her iPad apps which used to work just fine.

Now she can’t. Because phone troubleshooting is hard. Because app updates are hard? Because iOS frustratingly still doesn’t have any screen sharing options. Because an app seemingly, needlessly, threw out perfectly valid credentials after an update? And, granted, perhaps there are things I don’t understand about the development process behind this stuff that are really hard.

All I know is that this sucks. That for the first time in a while, I failed to help someone overcome a technological challenge. That my mom, already about as alienated by technology as one could possibly get, just became further alienated because a perfectly working app decided to croak for no apparent reason.

I admit I don’t understand the underlying systems here well enough to discuss or recommend solutions. But where possible, I would love if developers could get more deliberate and cautious with handling our credentials. Some apps absolutely need to protect access to sensitive data and services, and perhaps require re-authorization on some regular basis (password and banking apps, for example). At the same time, I’ve seen cases where an update needlessly throws out existing credentials because the developer just didn’t think about it, or the app uses some goofy web authorization system that throws out cookies every couple days or weeks.

This carelessness might result in only minor speed bumps for the more tech-capable among us. But to a real, though effectively silent group of people, those bumps become insurmountable mountains that wall them off from a tech world they wish they could join.