Support for multiple user accounts on Android was a long time coming

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| August 3, 2012

Mobile operating systems are still a long way off from becoming viable replacements to the desktop operating systems we've come to know and love, such as OS X and Windows. Android, iOS and Windows Phone all lack the fully-featured productivity and professional software necessary for running a business, they lack serious multitasking – or simultasking – abilities and a handful of other features that many desire in a serious portable computing device.

But even more basic than any of that, these mobile operating systems lack multiple user account support, meaning they are, in essence, meant to be used by a single consumer, not shared amongst two, three or an entire family. Currently, if one wants to share a mobile device right now, everyone's data is shared amongst all users. Unlike being able to log out of a primary account and login to a guest account on a computer, there is no way to log out of one user account an login to another from a mobile device, be it a smartphone, PMP or tablet.

However, it didn't take long for the prying eyes of developers to discover buried deep within the source code for Android version 4.1, Jelly Bean, unimplemented support for multiple user accounts. The strangest part? While the code is not entirely finished with all the kinks ironed out just yet, it is nearly complete and works remarkably well.

As Dima Aryeh of our Android-loving network site DroidDog relayed yesterday, setting up a secondary account can be done in a matter of seconds with minimal effort, so long as your device is already rooted … and running Jelly Bean, of course. (Note: PhoneDog nor DroidDog are responsible for any subsequent damages to your Android device if you choose to modify or alter the software on your phone. Proceed at your own risk.)

To do so, simply download the application called Terminal Emulator and type:


pm create-user Guest

If the command is successful, when you hold the power button on your device, you will see two accounts. One will be labeled "Primary" and the other will be "Guest". Of course, you can name the second account whatever you would like. Now switching user accounts is as simple as holding the power button and tapping the profile of choice.

Now, take note that I said the code is "nearly" complete. It is not entirely finished, which is likely why it was not fully implemented by the Android development team or announced as an official feature during the Google I/O keynote. There are some bits missing and not everything is fool-proof just yet. For example, if you switch to the guest account, zanderman112 of xda-developers says, "texts from the primary user's still show in the 2nd test account." And some pointers from Phandroid pointed out some other important notes:

  • Notifications and recent apps do not clear (remember… unfinished) and causes confusion to what user you’re on and will switch to whatever user that is running that particular app you click on.
  • Static wallpapers do not switch per user (seems to be shared) but live wallpapers do switch with each user.
  • Encrypted apps, which is all paid apps from the Play Store in Jellybean, will FC between users.  For example: if you run a paid app from one user on a different user that did not originally install the app, you will get the following error: "E/AndroidRuntime( 8707): Caused by: java.lang.ClassNotFoundException: com.levelup.beautifulwidgets.BeautifulWidgets"
  • Apps all have different settings which allows you to login or have different settings per user.  (even gmail)

As it stands, it isn't perfect. There are a lot of necessary functions of multiple user accounts that need to be implemented before it's a viable option for multiple people to share a device without exposing all of their personal information with every user. That said, in its current form, it works perfectly as a guest mode, which is something I've talked about before.

I'm not particularly a fan of handing my phone over to someone else – friend or stranger – for them to use. There's a chance they could come across information that I don't want them to see, like my text messages, emails or stuff within my personal accounts. Through this method, you can hand your tablet or smartphone over to someone else and still have your mind at ease. Per zanderman112:

  1. Label the 2nd user Guest
  2. Use Nova or Apex as the launcher for the Guest user, and hide all of the apps you want(texts, social media, email, etc) from the app drawer.
  3. Setup a security lockscreen on the primary user to prevent Guests from gaining access(each user has different lockscreen settings)

I added an account titled Guest on my Nexus 7 yesterday afternoon and have been tinkering with it off and on ever since. So far, it seems pretty solid. No, the notifications still don't clear when switching users. But so long as you remember clear your recent apps and notifications before handing it over, you should be good to go with nothing to worry about. The password lock keeps another person from getting into your accounts and settings while enabling them to use your tablet and maintaining the integrity of your private information and preferred setup.

On my Nexus 7, I have my home screen setup to my liking with north of 70 applications installed (including system apps). As you can see in the screen capture above, however, I have all but a few applications hidden, out of the reach of a guest user. They can login to their Facebook or Google account without affecting any of my data or accounts. It's quite literally a dream come true.

This was a long time coming … There have been implementations of this before, like the Privacy Mode in the popular custom ROM, MIUI. But this is much more in-depth and useful than just a Privacy Mode that simply hides information from plain view. It literally separates data and allows for more than one primary user.

According to Phandroid, the commit messages for these commands data back to early 2011, so it's impossible to say when this feature will become official. The good news is, it's coming and it's already 90 percent working. Hoo-rah for Android, right?

Tell me, readers. Does multiple user account support in Android make a difference to you? Will you be sharing your tablet with friends and family more so, now that you can keep all of your personal information separate? Or is this just a neat little feature that will never make a difference to you?