Family Sharing is broken, but Apple could easily fix it
Apple’s got a bunch of new services on the way. News+ just launched. Apple TV+ is coming this fall. So is Apple Arcade. By the end of this year, the only way to experience the best of the Apple ecosystem will be to subscribe to one or more of these services, probably along with current services like expanded iCloud storage or Apple Music.
That could get expensive very quickly. It’s not hard to imagine Apple services draining $30 to $50 a month out of your bank account.
But there’s a silver lining! Apple is keen to remind us that a core tenet of its services is Family Sharing. That Apple Arcade subscription isn’t just for you, it’s for you and five other family members! That really softens the blow: If Apple Arcade seems too expensive at $10 a month, how does $2 a month sound? Just get four family members together and split the cost! (Apple Arcade pricing has not yet been announced; the $10 price is a guess.)
Unfortunately, Family Sharing has a serious problem. A deal-breaking, crippling policy that makes it unusable for a great many people.
When you turn on Purchase Sharing, you force every purchase made by your entire family to go through a single person’s account. Everything bought by everyone gets billed to that one individual, no exceptions. That’s just crazy. And while it shouldn’t affect most of Apple’s subscription services, those services are going to cause a lot more people to enable Family Sharing. Now is the time to fix it.
Purchase Sharing’s huge flaw
When you set up Family Sharing on your Apple ID, you can add up to five other family members, for a total of six people. One of them is the “Organizer”—the person who set up the family and can add or remove people—and everyone else is either an Adult or a Child (with restricted privileges).
You then have the option to turn on or off various Family Sharing features. If you have an Apple Music family sharing account, you can turn that on. If you pay for iCloud storage, you can share that. Location Sharing, Screen Time, and Apple News+ sharing can all be enabled or disabled individually.
The problem is Purchase Sharing. If you enable this, everyone in your Family (except restricted Child accounts) can share all the movies, TV shows, books, and music you purchased on iTunes, and even most of your paid-for apps (but not in-app purchases). It’s a great benefit. But it comes with a huge anchor weighing it down.
Turn on Purchase Sharing and the Organizer of your family pays for everything that every family member buys on the App Store, iTunes, or Apple Books. That includes content that can’t be shared! There are no exceptions. There is no way to disable it for specific family members. You can enable a feature called Ask to Buy that gives the Organizer the ability to approve purchase requests, but that’s all—there’s no way for family members to ever buy anything themselves.
For example: I’m the Organizer of my family, which includes my wife, my parents, my sister, and her daughter. It’s a pretty typical arrangement. If I turn on Purchase Sharing, those other five people can watch the movies I have purchased in iTunes and run many of the paid apps I bought. But my account will be billed for every purchase they make in iTunes or the App Store. The only way not to pay for, say, my sister’s purchases, is to remove her from the family (which means she can no longer share iCloud storage, access the shared family Photos album, or listen to the shared Apple Music account). If she makes a purchase (which I must pay for), and then leaves the family group, she keeps it, not me.
This is a terrible situation in family full of adults, but it’s even worse in a mixed family of adults and kids. You may want to enable Purchase Sharing on your child’s account, but not on other adults in the family. This is not possible: It’s everyone or no one, everything or nothing.
Several ways to fix the problem
It makes some sense to avoid overlapping purchases and sharing confusion with a single point of sale, but Apple’s approach is restrictive to the point of absurdity, and makes it hard to justify enabling Purchase Sharing in all but the most limited cases. There are lots of ways to fix this.
Perhaps the best way to address the Purchase Sharing feature would be to invert the current scheme. Let every family member make their own purchases by default, and to enable or disable Purchase Sharing on their own accounts, sharing their own purchases with other family members. The Organizer could opt to make all purchases for Child accounts and individual Adult accounts, with their permission. Instead of everyone being forced into a single purchase account, they’d all have their own, with an opt-in to Organizer purchasing.
Apple could also leave the current system in place, but adapt the Ask to Buy feature. If the organizer enables Ask to Buy on a family member, and then they ask to make a purchase, they could be given the option to either ask the Organizer or make the purchase themselves.
The most basic solution would be to give all family members a pop-up box when making a purchase: either ask the Organizer to buy the item (in which case it is shared), or buy it yourself (in which case it is not). This is possibly the cleanest option, but not the most desirable.
Subscriptions should not be affected
Fortunately, Apple has separate sharing options for subscription services like Apple Music and Apple News+, which means you can share those with your family members without turning on Purchase Sharing. As Apple Arcade and Apple TV+ roll out later this year, the company would presumably add individual sharing toggles for those as well. So even if Apple never fixes Family Sharing’s “single purchase account” problem, you could theoretically share those services without turning on Purchase Sharing at all.
That doesn’t let Apple off the hook entirely. The new Channels feature coming in iOS 12.3 lets you subscribe to pay TV streaming services like Showtime and HBO right within the TV app. Those work with Family Sharing, but you’ll have to enable Purchase Sharing for them to have access.
Apple’s new services are going to add a lot of value to Family Sharing. More users are likely to enable it, and even if Purchase Sharing isn’t needed to share those services, they’ll want to share App Store and iTunes purchases. Then they’ll run into the payment roadblock. The time for Apple to address its completely inflexible payment structure is now, before the surge in Family Sharing brought on by subscription services.