Desktop Android? Multi-user Android support is on its way

Summary:Android is great on smartphones and tablets, but it could work on the desktop? One critical missing part has been multi-user support, but thanks to clues in the code we now know that multi-user Android support is on its way.

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Multi-user Android is on its way, can the Android desktop be far behind?

Your smartphone is your smartphone, your tablet is usually your tablet, but your desktop, well you probably share it sometimes with friends, family, and co-workers. That's one of the reasons why Android, the popular Linux-based device operating system has never been seriously considered for the desktop. Without multi-user support, it's not great for a shared computer. That may be changing. We now know that Google has been slowly introducing multi-user support into Android.

There's never been any question that Android users want multi-user support. A quick look through the Android bug tracker shows that users have been demanding multi-user support since 2011. Ron Amadeo, a writer for Android Police, an online publication dedicated to Android, has dug into the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) for code for Android 4.0 and 4.1, which was publicly released in early July ,, and he's found clues that Android multi-user support is being built into Jelly Bean, Android 4.1. Indeed, some of it is already working today.

Officially, Google tells me that they “don't have anything to announce at this time!” But, while they may not have any announcement, the code speaks for itself.

Amadeo found that the following functions are being set up for multiple-users: “lock screens, installed applications, running applications, application data, default applications, home screen widgets, accounts, syncing, and language.” What's already up and working is a multiple user directory system: /data/systems/users.

Within this directory system he found that user 0, which seems to be present on all Jelly Bean systems,  has an "Accounts.db" file. This “is an SQLite database. It contains the accounts listed under the "Accounts" section of settings, in my case, Google and Dropbox. It also contains the full list of every Google service I've ever used, my preferred language, and my authtokens [authentication tokens]. So it looks like accounts and syncing is on a per-user basis now, too.”

In addition, Amadeo found that applications, both those installed by your device vendor and by yourself are storing their data in your user directory. In short, if Google were to introduce multi-user support, third-party application data support is already ready to go.

It's not just Amadeo who's been finding breadcrumbs leading to the conclusion that Android multi-user support is on its way. A programmer who goes by the handle zandwerman112 has published a how-to guide for enabling multi-user support in Jelly Bean. At this time it's very limited, but if can be done.

Other developers are now working on it, and one of them, Chirayu Desai, submitted a patch to AOSP and got a telling response from Amith Yamasani, a Google software engineer. Yamasani turned down the patch writing, “Multi-user feature is not ready for deployment. Bad things will happen if you use it in its current state! This UI [user interface] might change based on designs from our UX [user experience] team. Sorry, we cannot accept your change.”

There's your smoking gun. Google is bringing multi-user support to Android and it's far enough along that they're no longer working on just the background processes, they're also well into the user-interface design. The only real questions now are when and how will Google introduce it.

I strongly suspect we'll see multi-user support introduced in Android 5. Experts expect the new Android to arrive in 2012's 4th quarter . I expect Android 5 to show up on new Android handsets and tablets. I also expect Google to backport it to its wildly popular Nexus 7 tablet .

That will be great for users who share tablets, but what I really wonder if Google will decide to finally offer an Android desktop offering of its own. In particular, I wonder if Google will at long last combine its Chrome OS, which is just the Chrome browser running on a thin-layer of Linux, with Android for a new desktop operating system.

Think about it. Chrome now runs on Android. I like Chromebooks, but for every Chrome OS user there's already hundreds of Android users. At the same time, Microsoft is fumbling its Windows 8 introduction , if ever there was a time for Google to introduce an Android desktop, this is the time.

Related Stories:

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Google open-sources Android 'Jelly Bean' 4.1 for third-party modification

Google's latest Chrome OS: You now have a desktop, but...

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Topics: Android, Enterprise Software, Linux, Mobile OS, PCs, Smartphones, Tablets

About

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, aka sjvn, has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the cutting edge, PC operating system; 300bps was a fast Internet connection; WordStar was the state of the art word processor; and we liked it.His work has been published in everything from highly technical publications... Full Bio

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