Family Sharing provides users with a way to share purchases from their iCloud/iTunes account with up to five other people. Additionally, this feature enables you to create iCloud accounts for children, and to manage the purchases and content available to those accounts.
iTunes has been around a lot longer than this feature, and so for years now, people have had to a different means to share app purchases across multiple users. The most common solution is pretty straightforward; create one iTunes account that is shared by multiple people. Apple supports this approach, too: on any Mac or iOS device, you can use one account for your iCloud stuff and a separate one for your iTunes stuff.
Pitfalls of a Shared iTunes Account
Some things associated with a shared iTunes account are problematic. For instance, podcast syncing is associated with your iTunes account, so if multiple people sharing an iTunes account have wildldy different podcast preferences, they either need to live without podcast syncing across devices, or accept a certain amount of data storage on their devices that will go to some podcast subscriptions that you have no interest in.
So, when I originally heard about Family Sharing, my impression was that this was Apple attempting to create a real feature around sharing purchases without needing to directly share an iTunes account, and maybe pull in some nice new functionality as well. Having looked into this some more, my verdict is “hit and miss”.
Family Sharing: Hits
Family Sharing includes a new layer of parental controls that was sorely missing in iTunes. My kids don’t have tablets or mobile phones of their own yet, but the time will come, and when it does, I will be sent an e-mail and will be asked to approve / disapprove any specific purchase that they try to make.
But the biggest feature of Family Sharing is, of course, the opportunity to share purchases across multiple accounts while still preserving the separation of those accounts. This solves the podcast syncing issue that I mentioned because under this model, each person uses their own distinct iTunes account and only purchased content is available to Family Sharing group participants.
Family Sharing: Misses
Unfortunately, the implementation is not perfect, and the largest gap would have to be the lack of support for iTunes Match.
For those who don’t know, the iTunes Match service enables an iTunes account to sync their music across all of their devices even if the music wasn’t originally purchased in iTunes. This is a huge, awesome feature that was introduced three years ago.
However, even if you use an iTunes Match-enabled account as the Organizer role in a Family Sharing configuration, the songs that you added to iTunes Match from other sources are not available to the Family Sharing members. For people who started building their music collections before the internet, or bought DRM-free music from an online store other than iTunes, this is a huge setback.
The whole point of sharing an iTunes account is to share content, but Apple is clearly drawing the line at content expressly purchased through iTunes. There are some other limitations as well, but for me, the lack of iTunes Match support practically guts Family Sharing as a feature.
I’m a few years out from buying any of my kids their own mobile device, so there isn’t any immediate benefit to me of the Parental Controls that Family Sharing provides. Nonetheless, I am happy that these controls exist now and that I have this option when I need it.
Meanwhile, Apple’s policy around nerfing iTunes Match for Family Sharing completely undermines the value of Family Sharing for adult users. If my wife and I used separate iTunes accounts that were linked through Family Sharing, we would actually be significantly limiting the amount of shared content available to one of those accounts. Thanks but no thanks.
Hopefully Apple will sort this out, because half of the functionality offered by Family Sharing is going to be pretty useful to me down the road. In the meantime my wife and I will continue to share an iTunes account. I think I can live without cross-device Podcast syncing 🙂