As I read through various reviews of Mac OS X Lion, one theme kept popping up like those sneaky new scrollbars: that Lion is the foundation for the next era of Apple’s desktop operating system, representing a transition more than a revolution. By refining OS X, implementing elements inspired by iOS, and adding features that emphasize the computer not as a system of files but a truly user-focused interface to actions and applications, Apple is laying the groundwork for a future where everything is taken care of by the operating system (to the malcontent of advanced users who like a bit more control), and all the user needs to worry about is making use of the tools available. Whether that’s been accomplished — or whether this new direction is merely an obfuscation of paradigms that have served users perfectly well for years — is yet to be determined. From the reviews, I’d say the answer is, a bit of both. Some of the changes in Lion definitely work, and will be especially welcome to new and casual users (like Versions, Auto Save, Resume, Launchpad and Gestures). Others are more questionable (like disappearing scrollbars and other UI “refinements,” and… Gestures, again).
In the interest of bringing together disparate theories and ideas on the future of “the world’s most advanced desktop operating system” (conducted by one of the world’s greatest companies), I’ve collected some relevant excerpts from some excellent reviews (which you should nonetheless read in their entirely, not mainly to learn about Lion but because each provides unique and compelling opinions and observations about Lion and its role in the future of Apple’s computing empire).1
With 10.7, Apple is once again creating an OS that looks to the future. There’s a host of terrific, tangible, practical features, sure. But on the whole, you come away from the Lion experience thinking that you’re looking at Apple’s plan for the next five years. There’s little that’s truly revolutionary about Lion, but I can’t help but lick my chops and wonder what the next few years hold in store for Mac users.
Lion feels like the most future-forward OS Apple’s released in ages. The built-in autosave and version control, and fullscreen apps, and be content to think that these are fine features as-is, for example. But we know that these features are also important parts of a new foundation. Lion is an OS that was designed to be used with a cloud service. Yes, I know, big deal: anything with a keyboard and a screen can use a cloud storage service. Conceptually, you’re just asking it to connect to a file server. Computers have been able to do that for ages. Lion goes far beyond that.
The other major win of MacOS’ iPad-ification is a subtle one. I truly believe that the concept of a visible file system is a leftover relic of the 70’s and that it’s becoming increasingly irrelevant to modern computing. If the idea of opening a window full of folder and document icons won’t disappear completely in five years, it’s going to at the very least become like Mac OS’s Unix terminal. That is, it’ll there if you look for it and you want to use it, but most users won’t need to know it even exists.
As we’ve heard so many times from Apple, this is a “Back to the Mac” operating system. But Lion is more than just elements that pull from what we see and know on iOS. It is also full of hints that point to the future of Apple hardware and the amalgamation of iOS and OS X. It is exciting to see this big picture slowly coming into focus.
In trying to make OS X more approachable, I fear Apple just made it more complicated, with more abstractions than ever.
Lion is the wrong step into that future. By trying to please everyone, the OS X team has produced an incongruent user interface pastiche that won’t satisfy the consumers seeking simplicity nor the professional users in search of OCD control. Apple hasn’t really targeted a specific population. Or provided varying levels of user control–a super-simple modal interface for normal people and pro-level classic window interface for nerds. That’s what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8. Ironically, if Apple had taken a page out of Microsoft’s book in this case, it would have been a step in the right direction.
Still, this is the most significant release of Mac OS X in many years—perhaps the most significant release ever. Though the number of new APIs introduced in Lion may fall short of the landmark Tiger and Leopard releases, the most important changes in Lion are radical accelerations of past trends. Apple appears tired of dragging people kicking and screaming into the future; with Lion, it has simply decided to leave without us.
In Lion, Apple has taken a hard look at the assumptions underlying the last ten years of Mac OS X’s development—and has decided that a lot of them need to change.
Lion’s scroll bars are a microcosm of Apple’s new philosophy for Mac OS X. This is definitely a case of reconsidering a fundamental part of the operating system—one that hasn’t changed this radically in decades, if ever. It’s also nearly a straight port from iOS, which is in keeping with Apple’s professed “back to the Mac” mission. But most importantly, it’s a concrete example of Apple’s newfound dedication to simplicity.
Though the Lion name suggests the end of something, the content of the operating system itself clearly marks the start of a new journey. Seemingly emboldened by the success of iOS, Apple has taken a hatchet to decades of conventional wisdom about desktop operating systems.
Over the past decade, better technology has simply reduced the number of things that we need to care about. Lion is better technology. It marks the point where Mac OS X releases stop being defined by what’s been added. From now on, Mac OS X should be judged by what’s been removed.
With Lion we begin to see a subtle obfuscation of the file system and a move toward skeuomorphic design for certain apps — yuck. This represents exactly what Lion is: a nudge forward that pushes what seem to be subtle changes, which are in fact a rethinking how computers should be used.
Not a nudge in the sense that this is an entirely new OS, but a nudge in the sense that this is an OS built for today’s computer users. In stark contrast to what we are used to: systems built for people that want, or know, how to use the system.
Yet it is the same old Mac OS X that we’re all very used to.
Lion then, is built for people — plain and simple. One could argue that the Mac from day one was built that way, but then I would ask you how many times you heard someone say: “I don’t know where I saved it”. Until you eliminate those phrases, until you eliminate the confusion, you don’t have a system built for real people. Lion is a step in the right direction towards removing this confusion.
As I said Lion is not about massive operation changes — it is more about subtle refinement of every aspect of not just Mac OS X, but of computing in general. That’s why at first glance it is harder to see the system files in Finder and easier to just see every user created file — OS X is showing you what you are likely to be looking for first not the logical structure of all your data.
Lion is not about the ‘iOSification’ of OS X — that is a short-sighted summary of Lion in my opinion. There is edge smoothing, feature additions and all sorts of stuff like that, and yes some cues were taken from its sibling iOS — but it’s not iOS, it doesn’t want to be and it doesn’t try to be.
Lion is exceptionally well done. Consistency, the user experience, and improvements to the user interface aren’t a nod towards iOS, but rather a nod towards Apple’s future.
There is lots of familiarity between OS X and iOS, but that doesn’t mean these things are on collision course. Instead, the improvements to the user experience can simply be attributed to this: the ability to transition between the iPad and the Mac without thinking about how you interact with these devices is key. There’s a convergence in behaviors, but not with what OS X can do. Lion is much stronger than previous iterations of OS X and finally ties all of the ideas Apple has had about desktop interfaces into once nice package.