The New Plug-and-Play: Why Apple Must Fix Apple IDs

Apple must fix their device setup process to make it easier again.For most of Apple’s history, they’ve been famous for their plug-and-play devices.  You pull a computer out of the box, plug it into the wall, and start doing things you love.

I spent most of the last two days helping my family setup new Apple devices (2 iPhone 4Ss, 2 iPad 2s, 1 Apple TV, 1 iMac).  None of these devices were plug-and-play.*  And for the non-Mac items, it wasn’t even close.

The core of the problem is Apple IDs.  When setting up Apple devices, you must enter or create an Apple ID to download any new content (music, apps, books, movies, TV shows, newspaper or magazine subscriptions, etc), to get content from your other devices, to use FaceTime and iMessage, or just to sync your contacts, calendars and other basic data.  These are a few of the tasks every user wants to perform immediately when they start using their device.  They are the features that Apple pushes hardest to sell their devices – (can you even remember the last Apple ad you saw that didn’t focus on apps, FaceTime or both?).  But you need your Apple ID before you can do any of that, and there are a few major problems with device setup using Apple IDs:

  1. The term “Apple ID” isn’t common enough for the average consumer to know what it is (“iTunes email” seems to be common name for it among my friends).
  2. All 6 people who I helped setup devices this weekend have more than one Apple ID (I’ll explain why this is such a serious problem in a moment).
  3. Apple IDs cannot be deleted.
  4. Entering an Apple ID into your device upon setup or from device settings does not sign you in persistently across the device.

Alone, none of these (except maybe #4) are all that problematic.  But together they make it a huge headache to setup new Apple devices, especially the ones that run iOS.  These are verbatim quotes from new Apple device owners in my family over the last two days:

  • “Apple hates me”
  • “This technology is way to complicated for my life”
  • “Can’t I just start fresh?”
  • “Why is this so complicated?”
  • “I don’t care anymore, I just want to play with my iPad”
  • “I’m too old for technology”
  • “I know you have way-above-average knowledge about Apple, but how is the average customer supposed to figure this out?”
Steves Jobs would cry if he heard any of those.  They represent the exact opposite of what Apple stands for and what Apple has consistently delivered for the past decade.  All these setup frustrations boil down to the Apple ID issues I pointed out.  The solutions may be technical challenges for Apple, but conceptually they’re very simple:
  1. Dedicate the initial login screen to explaining what the user’s “Apple ID” is.  This can be as simple as “this is the email address you use for iTunes purchases”.
  2. Make it easy to merge multiple Apple IDs.  This is extremely important because:
    • It appears many people have multiple Apple IDs (I have 3)
    • If your email address is associated with one Apple ID, it cannot be associated with another.
    • For communication tools (iMessage and FaceTime) you want to associate your account with the email address that your contacts already know.
    • Apple IDs can currently not be deleted or merged, forcing users to either make fake email addresses to replace their real ones on the Apple IDs they no longer use or to choose one of their old Apple IDs and surrender any content they purchased on the newer one.
  3. Make entering or creating your Apple ID the first step to setting up your device, and the only time you ever need to enter it.  iOS 5 does as you for your Apple ID right away, but it doesn’t sign you in across all the functions of your device:
    • On iPad you must setup and sign into iMessage and FaceTime even after you’ve logged into the App Store or iTunes.
    • On Apple TV you must sign into “Home Sharing” after you’ve signed into your Apple ID for the rest of the device.
    • On Macs you must sign into the App Store and iTunes Store separately.
    • On iPhones you must manually add “Receive at” email addresses for iMessage and FaceTime, and make sure they’re first deleted from other Apple ID accounts.

Steve Jobs understood the importance of introductions, especially the first introduction of a person to the computer he’s just hired.  Setting up an Apple device wasn’t even deserving of the name “process” for most of the past decade, but now it deserves “arduous setup process”.  A significant part of iOS 5 is dedicated to a “PC-free” setup and experience through iCloud.  Hopefully Apple polishes this system in iOS 6 so every user truly can buy any iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple TV, type in their Apple ID and password and begin using it like it’s their own.  This will be the new plug-and-play.

*I’ll caveat that both iPads were running iOS 4 out of the box because they were purchased a couple months ago, but weren’t opened until Christmas.  iOS 5 would have made this easier but doesn’t solve the root problem.

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