Forget apps, Apple's core iPad 2 experience needs to grow up

Shiny shiny, shiny Apple iPad; whiplash tablet in the dark. Forgive the Velvet Underground, but sometimes it really does feel like being a masochist would make the iOS user experience easier to stomach. Yes, Apple's App Store may be the most bulging around, offering hundreds of thousands to titles whether you want to turn your iPad 2 into a recording studio, games machine or digital recipe book. Problem is, there's still no way to turn the iPad into a proper, multi-user, family tablet.

The iPad 2 gets some stick for requiring a PC or Mac to set it up in the first place, but it's arguably more disappointing that, from there on, it's really focused on a single user. One email inbox, one calendar view, one set of Safari bookmarks: if you're living in a commune then perhaps that's okay, but for everybody else it leaves the choice of either opening up your messages and schedule to anybody curious enough to stab at the icon.

It's something I touched on when I wrote my iPad 2 Skeptic's Review last week, but it's not a new frustration. Notifications, multi-user accounts, multitasking – they're all complaints I leveled back in my original iPad review, when iOS 3.2 was new and shiny. Now we're up to iOS 4.3.1 and most of the pain-points are still there.

There are plenty of people using their iPad and iPad 2 tablets as family slates, with games for the kids, streaming content for parents and a little web browsing for everybody, but without user accounts or a way to switch between multitasking environments it all falls short of its true potential. Say I've been switching between Safari, reading restaurant reviews, Google Maps, to see where they are, and my inbox, to invite people out for dinner; I can flick between the apps pretty quickly, with a double-click of the home button, but should anybody use the iPad in the meantime, there's a fair chance I'll lose one or more of my webpages, the open email I'm writing, perhaps the locations I'm looking at on the map.

What's needed is a way to manage multiple users and – handy even if you're the only person using the iPad 2 – multiple use-cases. Apple's existing iOS multitasking system of freezing apps and leaving only certain core APIs running shouldn't have any problem with this – my activities are simply frozen in state – but so far there's no way to elegantly share the slate with family, friends or colleagues. You can't have a different music library to that of your kids, a different photo gallery, even the shots you take with the iPad 2's low-res cameras all get lumped in together.

If you buy into the idea that Apple is leading the tablet market right now, it certainly follows that rivals have stumbled after the iPad with their own short-sighted user experiences. Android 3.0 Honeycomb may have all the homescreen widgets and thumbnail previewed multitasking that iPad 2 owners can only dream of, but it's still resolutely stuck to a single user account. From what we've seen of HP's webOS based Touchpad, that looks to make the same single-owner mistake, while if the functionality is there in RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, the Canadian company hasn't shown it off.

Salvation may – in part – be at hand. A recently spotted patent application from Apple suggests the company is exploring bringing Spaces – its virtual desktop feature in OS X – over to iOS. The accompanying graphics show a nine-pane preview of multiple desktops, a blend of live-widget multitasking and a way to split apart work, personal and other apps and groups of apps with simple gestures to move between them. No sign of any link with user-accounts, nor different iterations of core apps like Mail and Calendar, but at least I could split my dinner plan research off from someone checking Facebook. I've also heard from OEMs that Google is looking at multi-user support for a future Android 3.x release, though there's no timescale for its arrival and the project is peppered with considerations like how to handle app purchases: should every user of the tablet be allowed to access the same paid-app?

With iOS on the iPad and Honeycomb, Apple and Google have recognized that tablets demand different interfaces from smartphones. What they've proved less cognizant of is that tablets generally occupy a very different, communalist role to our personal handsets. Perhaps Apple will address it with iOS 5.0 at WWDC 2011 later this year, but until then the iPad remains the tactile tablet users really don't want anybody else to touch.