How Do You Set Up iCloud for a Family?

// October 17th, 2011 // iCloud

How Do You Set Up iCloud for a Family?: “

While this is a bit of specific case, I do know plenty of people besides myself who are using a single Apple ID to share apps between several devices. This capability, along with the inexpensive and contract-free iPod Touch, is one of the big attractions of the Apple ecosystem for families. I have an iPhone 4 and an iPad 2, my wife has a 3GS, and my two boys each have an iPod Touch. We also have an Apple TV in the house now, and when I upgrade the 4S in a month (I hate you AT&T), my wife will inherit my iPhone 4 and my 5 year old daughter will take her 3GS to use without the SIM as an iPod. Thanks to the ability to share my original Apple ID, we’ve been able to save a lot of money in apps and music over time. The Apple ecosystem makes perfect sense for a family like us, and I know many others who are doing the same things with several Apple devices in their households.

As great a fit as the Apple ecosystem has been, it can also be a real hassle trying to keep all of those devices upgraded, backed up, and synced with 2 different computers in our house. This is one of the reasons that I was so excited when I heard Steve Jobs describe what iCloud would offer when it arrived. It was instantly going to do away with all that complication, and allow each of us to manage and backup our devices without going to a specific computer.

However, questions that were not answered in the general descriptions of Mr Jobs’ keynote soon arose after I started using the iOS 5 beta on mine and my wife’s iPhones. If we only had one Apple ID, and our iCloud account was linked to it, how were we supposed to independently synchronize our devices? And this was with only two devices in our house running the beta. We would eventually be adding four more when iOS 5 was released. How the heck was this going to work?

Unfortunately, Apple was not giving away any specific answers to this and many other specific questions during the beta. I dug through the Apple forums and did several Google searches, but most of the discussions that I came across centered on the exact opposite problem- people who had multiple Apple IDs and MobileMe account who would no longer be able to use them all one a single device. Even when I came across discussions of this issue, there weren’t any solid answers.

This put a damper on my enthusiasm for iCloud, as my wife and I would now have to pick and choose who got to use what sync features. I already had an established document workflow with Docs To Go and Dropbox, and we have an Exchange server at my office, so all of my Calendar, Contacts, Mail, and Notes are already backed up. My wife took these features in iCloud. However, I really needed a way to sync Safari bookmarks between my iPhone and iPad, so I had to take that. It wasn’t an issue having all of our content combined in Photo Stream, and iCloud never had any trouble keeping our backups separated and easy to manage. But the sync issues were definitely a concern going forward.

Finally, last weekend I tried my search again and finally stumbled upon some answers. Apple recently released a support article that describes some of these policies and processes. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t cover our one Apple ID for a group scenario. Apple certainly hasn’t made the setup process straightforward or described it in great detail, but thankfully, they have given users the ability to either set up separate iCloud accounts, or, even better for families, “sub-accounts” in iCloud that are tied to the master Apple ID iCloud account.

When you set up your first iCloud account, it automatically uses the email address of the Apple ID that you are logged into your device with. I think that this is where a lot of the confusion comes in. Your Apple ID and iCloud accounts are NOT inseparably linked. Apple never has made this distinction completely clear. Even worse, during the setup process I will take you through in a moment, they are referred to as Apple IDs. I guess they can be used as Apple IDs, but they don’t HAVE to be, and that is an important distinction.

So, here is the solution that I found to get iCloud working for my family. This process may change in the future now that iCloud is in the wild, but for now, the setup of “sub-accounts” currently takes place on your device. First of all, you need to make sure that the device you are using is currently set up with the Apple ID that you plan to use going forward. Remember that, starting in iOS 5, once you sign into the Store or iTunes with an Apple ID, you are going to be tied to it for 90 days. You can no longer switch back and forth and apps and music from different accounts. Also, you need to designate which device or devices are going to exclusively use the master iCloud account that is directly tied to your Apple ID. You will not need to perform the procedure detailed below on those devices.

Before you start the account setup process, go to the iCloud tab in your Settings app. If anything except Photo Stream, Documents & Data, and Find My iPhone are selected, turn them off.

Once you’re ready, go to the Settings app on your device, and then to Mail, Contacts, Calendars.

Now you want tap Add Account. You’ll notice that your choices now include iCloud. This is what you want to choose.

Next, Tap the Get a Free Apple ID tab at the bottom of the screen. Don’t worry. You aren’t replacing the Apple ID you purchase with. This will not change anything to do with your App Store or iTunes account. This will be a new iCloud account with an @me email address. Again, Apple could have made this process more intuitive.

After selecting you country, and entering your date of birth, you will finally be ready to set up your new iCloud sub-account. Note that you will also get a free @me email address as part of this process. Choose “Get a Free @me Email Address” to set up your new account.

Once you are finished, you will have your new iCloud sub-account. When selected from within Main, Contacts, Calendar, your account edit page will look strikingly similar to what you see when you go to your main iCloud settings.

Now, you’ll want to turn on any of the features that you want to be synced to iCloud. Only devices tied to this iCloud ID will sync here. There will not be any conflicts with the main iCloud account user’s data. As for my household, I have already set up an account for my wife, and I will probably get one for my oldest son, as well. My little ones don’t use email, contact, or calendar, and Safari is turned off in the parental controls on their devices, so they really don’t need separate accounts yet. At least the option will be there when they are ready. All of these accounts are working as intended thusfar.

So that’s the good news. However, you may notice that there are no options for Photo Stream, Documents & Data, or Backup here.

That’s because Apple has restricted those features to the main Apple ID account. Thankfully, this isn’t a problem for the most part. If you go to the iCloud tab in Settings, you will see that it is still active, and is still pointed to the master account, not your new sub-account. That is why you needed to turn off all of the sync features before you set up your new account.

So let’s go through how the iCloud accounts interact. First, you actually have the option to do Find My iPhone through either account. For the sake of organization, I would suggest that you leave this enabled under the master account, so you don’t have to log in multiple times to track down your devices.

As for Photo Stream, it really depends on what kinds of pictures you take, and how you want to access them. My wife and son and I will all be using it, and it will work fine like that for us. They will have to put up with the occasional work photos and review screenshots, but it is worth the hassle to be able to freely share pictures among ourselves. However, it would be nice to see the ability to remove unwanted pictures from the Stream, directly from your device. You can reset the entire stream from settings, but that is like using a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel. I think that would definitely broaden Photo Stream’s appeal in the eyes of some early critics.

As for device backups, they will work as described by Steve Jobs in his last keynote.

As long as your device has backup enabled under the master account in the iCloud tab of Settings, your device should automatically attempt to backup once per day when it is plugged in and logged onto WiFi with Internet access. You can also initiate a manual backup at any time from the Storage and Backup tab at the bottom of the iCloud settings page.

There is, however, one small caveat to mention in regards to backups that ties into the next topic. Apple has given us the ability to manage our iCloud backups in great detail.

You can readily see exactly how much of your free 5GB (or more, if you choose to upgrade) you are using, and exactly what apps are using it. This is a very useful addition that gives users a lot of control over their data and is extremely easy to use. However, while you can turn apps on and off here, you do not have the ability to restore the data from a single app. Device restores are still one size fits all, which seems very arbitrary and limiting, considering the amount of control Apple has given us over all other aspects of the feature.

I noticed this limitation recently when I had to reset my wife’s iPhone 3GS because of a problem related to data corruption. Unfortunately, because of that, the problem was part of her backup, so a restore wouldn’t do us any good. I had to set her iPhone up as a new device. The iCloud backup of all her app data was absolutely useless in this instance, as there was no way for me to get to that data without doing a restore. It would really be of great benefit to users if Apple would add this capability in the future. What good is a backup if you can’t use it when and how you need it?

Now we get to the part where things are, well, still a little cloudy. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.) How will the Documents & Data synchronization work if multiple users are tied to it? I don’t think document sharing among multiple users would be the end of the world. It might add clutter to have my work stuff and my wife’s personal docs all in one location, but I’m sure it could work if we need it to. Since I am already using an alternative method, she probably won’t have to worry about me cluttering up her document collection, anyway.

While mass document syncing may be a hassle, at least we have a pretty clear picture of how it will work. We still don’t have a definitive answer on how the Data portion of this equation lines up, though. If multiple users under the same master iCloud account have this feature turned on, what will happen if they all have and use the same app? Will we constantly be overwriting each other’s game and app saves? That would absolutely suck. Is the implementation of this feature going to be left up to individual developers? If so, that could make things even worse because of the inherent lack of consistency from app to app.

According to all of the descriptions that I have read of how data sync will work, it looks like it was really geared toward an individual user with multiple devices that they want to keep in perfect sync. So, for me personally with an iPhone and iPad with several apps that I use on both, the data sync is going to be perfect. However, for the purpose of this discussion, it is a bit of a detriment that Apple isn’t giving us the flexibility to allow Document & Data sync under each iCloud sub-account.

There is another potential solution to this issue, but it will unfortunately has tradeoffs of its own. It appears that every Apple device owner has the ability to set up an individual iCloud account with the standard 5 GB of free storage, regardless of their Apple ID. So, you don’t have to set up an iCloud sub-account under a master. If you prefer, each user can have their own, individual account.

If you have already set up iCloud using your Apple ID (which is the default), then you will need to go into the iCloud settings and Delete the Account. Don’t worry, as this only deletes the iCloud account from this device.

You will also be prompted as to whether you want to keep your current data, or delete it.

Once this is done, go into the iCloud settings again. If you have already set up a sub-account, simply use that account information here. If not, then just follow the prompts to set up a new iCloud account from scratch. Now, you will have all off the services available to you, including a new Photo Stream, separate Documents and Data sync, and separate Backup. You also get a full 5 GB of storage for your new account.

Unfortunately, doing this will split up your Photo Stream, which sort of defeats the purpose of it for family use. Also, you will no longer have the option to view all of your devices at one time in Find My iPhone. Instead, you will have to remember each login and view them all separately. However, if you really need Documents & Data sync for more than one member of your household, then this is they only way to do it.

(Update: It seems that there is also another alternative iCloud setup that you can use for a family. Check the comment from Mu’aawiyah Tucker below for, what is essentially the opposite of the setup that I am using. He has a shared sub-account, with Calendar and Contacts synced and Find My iPhone shared, and then individual master iCloud accounts with their own Document Sync, Backup, and Photo Streams.  If you need Document & Data sync for each user, but don’t care about Photo Stream, then this is the setup for you. Thanks to Mr Tucker for sharing this alternate solution!)

There is also what looks to be a bug in the initial roll out of iCloud that bears mentioning here. As I stated earlier, each iCloud account comes with a free @me email address. However, while some users have reported that devices tied to an individual or master iCloud account automatically get access to their new email account in the Mail app, many others like myself do not. To get around this bug, I tried to go through the same setup procedure as described earlier to set up a sub account. However, instead of setting up a new ID, I tried entering my existing iCloud ID. Unfortunately, this brings up the following error message.

So, if for whatever reason, your iCloud email doesn’t show up automatically, how are you supposed to get access to your shiny, new email address? Fortunately, there is a work-around for this issue until Apple releases an update that will squash this bug. Go to your Mail, Contacts, Calendar settings, tap Add Account, choose Other, and then Add Mail Account.

Now, you can set up a basic IMAP email account.

Enter your name and @me account information here.

Now, you will need to enter the Incoming and Outgoing Server information.

Incoming Mail Server:
Host Name: p02-imap.mail.me.com
User Name: (Your full email address, including @me)
Password: (Your iCloud account password)

Outgoing Mail Server:
Host Name: smtp.me.com
User Name: (Your full email address, including @me)
Password: (Your iCloud account password)

This certainly isn’t the polished user experience that we expect from Apple, but at least this work-around will allow you to view your new @me account on your device. Apple doesn’t allow iOS devices access to the same iCloud web services that computer Internet browsers get (another curious decision), so this is the only way to check to your email on your device if it doesn’t automatically appear under accounts. Thankfully, since setting up sub-accounts is done in the Mail, Contact, Calendar account settings, they don’t seem to suffer from this bug. I have set up 3 now, and have not seen any issues with email not showing up properly for them.

So, as I said before, Apple has given us a way to keep using a single Apple ID for multiple users and devices. The setup may not be very intuitive, or the instructions very clear, but the mechanism is there, and it does work. It does seem like each feature was created in a vacuum, having its own strengths and specific purposes. Unfortunately, because of this, it seems that using certain features as they were intended can prevent you from using others. For example, if you want all of your family on Photo Stream, forget about everyone being able to use Documents & Data and vice versa.

Understand that I’m not trying to be too hard on Apple, here. iCloud is a brand new service, and is part of a very ambitious software release, in conjunction with both iOS 5 and iTunes Match. Hopefully Apple will take the time to clean things up a bit in future updates so the setup process is less confusing and some of the features will work together to their fullest extent for more than just individual users. However, just having the capability to manage a household full of devices without shuffling between computers is definitely worth the effort. Combine iCloud’s new goodies with iTunes Match, and you have a killer combination that puts all the power to manage your iOS apps, data, and muic in the palm of your hand, which is exactly where it belongs.

 

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