Eschewing the big announcements that are now reserved for significant hardware releases, Apple today quietly debuted a major expansion to iCloud, adding new features and applications to tie together iCloud’s existing services in a novel way to help families stay organized and keep in touch using their Apple devices, going beyond what’s possible with an app/service like Glassboard (see “Glassboard Keeps a Family in Touch,” 12 November 2012). iCloud for Families is an impressive start, addressing the needs of a single household while recognizing the role technology plays in connecting modern families across generations and geography. Since security and privacy play a key role in parent-child interactions, Apple gave me an advance look in my role as security consultant.
The core of iCloud for Families is a new Family section on the iCloud Web site and a companion iOS app that help you to define and manage your family. Family settings cascade through iCloud, configuring existing services and devices to support features like Find My Family, shared calendars, family mailing lists and instant messages, blended Photo Streams, and parental controls. iCloud for Families is available today for $29.95 per year.
Households and Extended Family -- When you subscribe to iCloud for Families, your first step is to “define” your family. iCloud for Families recognizes two categories of family members, and automatically configures the appropriate services for each.
Your “Household” includes members of your immediate family — parents and children, although the service doesn’t put a limit on either type, in a nod to blended and non-traditional families. Household members must have iCloud accounts. Joining a Household automatically configures Mail, iMessage, FaceTime, Location Services, Calendar, Notes, Reminders, and Photo Stream for each Mac or iOS device signed in with a designated iCloud account. It also allows access to the My Family dashboard on the iCloud Web site and in the iOS app. Lastly, parents can create iOS configuration files for pushing parental controls and other settings onto their kids’ devices.
You can add any email address to your “Extended Family,” which receives a limited set of services. Where the Household features target the day-to-day running of a family, Extended Family features are aimed at keeping grandparents, cousins, and close friends (plus those annoying relatives you have to include anyway) up to date. This could be a shot over the bow of Facebook, thanks to the well-defined privacy features, but it currently isn’t designed to replace a social media service.
Adding someone to your Extended Family sets them up with four features: Events (a shared calendar), Contacts (shared contact info), News (email updates), and Photo Stream (shared photos). Extended Family members don’t need to install any additional software or even sign up for iCloud, although some features won’t work without being logged in to iCloud.
Leveraging What Already Works -- iCloud for Families starts with a shared Family calendar, which includes group events and appears on each Household member’s devices. Existing Personal calendars are also created automatically shared with everyone in the family. All Household members can create additional calendars, but parents always have access to their children’s calendars, and children can’t modify a parent’s personal calendar. Parents can also create private calendars, whose events stay hidden, but block out time on the Family calendar.
Members of an Extended Family can subscribe to a separate Family Events calendar to be reminded of birthdays and other family activities. Instead of maintaining yet another calendar, you merely select a Share with Extended Family checkbox for events on the Family calendar you want to share outside the Household.
Next, iCloud for Families sets up a group email list for Household members. This functions like a normal mailing list, and the address is automatically added to every family member’s address book. Cleverly, this address is always
firstname.lastname@example.org, and Apple’s servers recognize that the sending address is part of a defined family, routing it appropriately to family members and preventing spoofing by working only with iCloud-generated messages. No more having to set up addresses like
email@example.com! This address also works for iMessage; it’s a useful way to communicate with everyone in the Household in real time.
All email messages sent to or received from family members, be they group or person-to-person messages, are marked in all versions of Mail as “Family” and available in a special smart mailbox, like VIP messages. These messages can also circumvent Do Not Disturb and trigger notifications.
For updating your Extended Family, iCloud uses a second email address:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Messages sent to this address — again, only from a Household iCloud email address — go to your entire Extended Family. Restricting this to a push-only format should reduce family friction; there’s no opportunity for public disagreement about parenting choices or politics. This feature makes it easy to keep a widespread family up to date, without requiring everyone to use something like Facebook.
Reminders and Notes also gain group lists, and give parents access to their children’s information. Now you can assign Susie her evening chores and know they’ll appear (and annoy, via notifications) on her iPod touch. Parent-generated reminders can’t be turned off, so your teenager can’t claim she never saw them. We do wish it also tracked when the recipient tapped the notification, then allowed us to print that confirmation on gold-leaf parchment, signed by Tim Cook, to aid in the inevitable “No, really, I didn’t see it” disputes.
Family-directed notes act more as an information archive than a replacement for refrigerator Post-Its. Text messages and email are better suited to updates like, “Working the late shift tonight. Heat dinner up in the microwave.”
Contacts automatically updates with the contact information for all family members, with a separate group for Extended Family members. In a nod to our increasingly mobile society, when someone in an Extended Family moves and changes their address in Contacts, that change propagates out to the Contacts apps of everyone else in the Extended Family.
One of the features I’m most looking forward to is the Family Photo Stream, which blends photos from all Household members’ individual Photo Streams (or selected albums, for those who don’t want to share everything), then pushes them to all devices.
I also expect that Family Photo Streams will be the most popular of the Extended Family features. As with events, all Photo Streams gain a new option to Share with Extended Family and now, instead of you having to remember everyone’s email address, iCloud for Families notifies everyone on your Extended Family list. For example, when you’re on vacation, you can create a new “Disneyland” album, mark it as shared, and after a long day feeding The Mouse all your disposable income, you can move photos on your iPhone into that album to share them with your entire family automatically.
Don’t Call It a Corkboard -- If you’re an iCloud for Families subscriber, launching the iOS app displays the My Family dashboard. Web users can also access the My Family dashboard on iCloud.com, where its icon appears alongside the other iCloud services.
Thankfully refraining from the trend toward skeuomorphic design (perhaps a sign of Jonathan Ive’s new control over Apple software), My Family doesn’t look like a family corkboard. Instead it is a simple, flat design with tiles reminiscent of Windows 8 to show the current status of your household, plus any events or news sent by Extended Family members.
Tiles show your events for the day and week, reminders, summaries of family messages, a map with the location of family members, recent notes, your blended Photo Stream, and Extended Family news. Tapping any tile displays more detail, and you can also create new events, reminders, messages, and notes from any appropriate tile.
Find My Family -- Location services for families is an interesting challenge; when your kids are young, it’s a tool for safety and peace of mind. As they get older, tracking their location is more about logistics and ensuring everyone is at the proper practice, playgroup, or event. A little older than that, and tracking is either a safety enhancement, logistics facilitator, or outright invasion of privacy. As a parent, sometimes you want your kid to know you are 5 minutes away from a pickup, yet on date night you probably don’t want them knowing you’re at a nearby hotel.
Find My Family balances these needs in interesting ways. First, it leverages the same always-on capability as Find My iPhone, which ensures that it can’t be turned off by quitting an app. For safety, if Find My Family is enabled for a device, and the device loses network connectivity for a certain amount of time or shuts down, the service can alert the parent and show the last known location. That should also prevent teens from turning on Airplane Mode to avoid tracking.
Second, parents can establish geographic “fences” that send alerts when a child arrives at or departs from a location. This works just like the geofencing notifications in Find My Friends, with some tweaks. Parents can create a list of locations to track regularly, including school, friends’ houses, the mall, and so on. More interesting, parents can choose to be notified when kids arrive at certain types of destinations, including bars, tattoo parlors, and medical dispensaries (in Colorado and California). This feature is at the mercy of the Maps database, so, as with Web-based filtering, it shouldn’t be relied on.
Third and finally, parents can set a Private Mode to hide location from other family members temporarily, changing the usual blue dot to a question mark and labeling it “An undisclosed location.” You can specify how long you want to stay private (in 30-minute blocks).
Impressive Parental Controls -- One of the major issues of handing over an iOS device to a kid is enabling contact, while maintaining some level of oversight and control. Apple has solved this in an ingenious way. When you designate someone as a child you can also set parental controls. iCloud for Families helps you create a configuration file you install on your children’s Macs, iPhones, and iPads just as though you were a corporate overlord pushing a compliance policy.
For iOS devices, parental controls start by allowing you to pre-configure any of the restrictions that were previously available in Settings > General > Restrictions. These include basic settings like blocking FaceTime, restricting purchases, or setting content rating requirements for the iTunes Store. Reportedly, these restrictions will also be extended in iOS 7 to enable parents to set time and time-of-day limits on overall use of the device to prevent excessive usage or any use after bedtime, plus time limits on both particular apps and types of apps to cut down on excessive game playing.
iCloud for Families extends these restrictions with controls to restrict phone calls, text messages, email, and FaceTime to members of your Household and Extended Family, plus a list of trusted friends and neighbors. For when that’s too restrictive, parents can block the numbers of inappropriate friends for calls and text messages. Phone numbers of Household members are automatically added as favorites in the Phone app. Apple also clearly lets you know that emergency calls to 9-1-1 are never restricted.
Some of the most interesting — and certain to be controversial — parental controls surround Photo Stream. One option creates an “enforced Photo Stream,” which pushes all photos taken by the device to the family Photo Stream, an intriguing way of ensuring your child doesn’t misuse the iPhone’s camera, or, if it does happen, that you’ll know about it quickly. If that’s too extreme, another setting will instead merely alert the parent — and transmit the photo — if it detects too high a percentage of skin tones in the picture. Aimed at preventing inadvisable photographic choices and the “you’re not going out dressed like that!” problem, the feature has proven flaky in testing, sending false positives when used at the beach and supporting only a limited range of ethnicities.
Overall, iCloud for Families is an impressive start, thanks to its leveraging and extending of existing iCloud services, enforcement of parental controls across all Apple devices, and support for both households and extended families. Some of the more extreme parental controls will no doubt engender debate, both within families and in society in general, but as always, it’s not the technology that’s at issue, but how it’s used. Regardless, the deep integration with iOS devices will make them all the more compelling in family settings. And that, we’re sure, will only sell more of them, a fact that isn’t in the least lost on Apple!